Trillick aiming to be next on Tyrone roll of honour
By Michael Devlin
Over the past 15 years in Ulster club football, a number of teams have made a habit of winning their county championship year in year out.
In Derry, Ballinderry did three-in-a-row and Slaughtneil achieved four, while Kilcoo put together a run of six Down titles.
Crossmaglen, meanwhile, held onto the Armagh crown for 13 consecutive seasons, and then following a blip in 2009, a further six times in succession. St Gall’s also enjoyed a lengthy monopoly on the Antrim title since the turn of the millennium.
This season, Derrygonnelly lifted the cup in Fermanagh for the fifth year in a row, while Scotstown are still in the running to retain the Monaghan title for the fourth successive time.
Such runs of domination don’t occur in the Tyrone Senior Football Championship. For a decade and a half, the O’Neill Cup has moved house every year, never staying in the same place for more than one season.
Since Carrickmore won the back-to-back Tyrone titles in 2004 and 2005, there have been seven different winners - Dromore, Clonoe, Coalisland, Omagh, Killyclogher, Trillick and Errigal Ciaran. Only one champion has ever made it back to the final in that time.
This Sunday will see the latter two battle it out for the honours, with Trillick disposing of last year’s reigning champions Coalisland to keep the O’Neill Cup in transit, and further underlining the ultra-competitiveness of club football in Tyrone.
“If you want to win a championship in Tyrone, you have to be right on your own game and you have to have a bit of luck here and there,” says Trillick coach Liam Donnelly.
“As the records have proven, nobody has won it in Tyrone back-to-back in 15 years. That shows that on any given year, there are six to eight teams that can win the championship in Tyrone.
“There are teams that put a good run together and surprise everybody, but generally at the outset of the year, there are a number of teams that would fancy themselves. League matches in Tyrone are notoriously close, and it’s the same for championship.”
While Tyrone Championship wins tend to be singular, the last few league titles have been won by Errigal Ciaran, and they are currently second place in this year’s Division One.
They possess inter-county star Peter Harte and the promising Darragh Canavan within their ranks, but Donnelly considers the balance of the Errigal team to be one of the reasons they have been many people’s front-runners for the championship from the outset.
“Errigal have won the last two leagues, and were beaten in a county final a few years ago. That proves to me they are a really consistent, good team and are rightly there in a county final in my estimation.
“I would say Errigal are a more experienced team than us, they are more used to winning to be honest. To have that wee bit of hurt from having lost a recent final can be a big driver too.
“Trillick and Errigal are two very balanced teams. Probably two teams that suit each other if there is such a thing. Two good footballing sides. It should be a real good game of football.”
Trillick’s five senior titles between 1974 and 1986 were becoming distant memories by the time a talented new crop from the club emerged, led by Liam’s sons, Mattie and Richard Donnelly, and the Brennan brothers, Lee and Rory.
A Senior Championship triumph came in 2015, returning the St Macartan’s to Tyrone’s top table after 29 years, and they have been serious contenders each year since.
“We are like any club, we have a bit of tradition and it’s always nice to have it,” says Donnelly, himself a winner of multiple county titles back in Trillick’s heyday.
And while those in the club were aware a talented new team were coming over the horizon, it was always a matter of harnessing that potential.
“We had a decent group of players coming up, and with the right application on their behalf and giving them the right opportunities from a management point of view, we knew we could be challenging for the top honours in Tyrone again.
“We were under no illusions about how hard it is to win in a county like Tyrone. We would have had expectations yes, but they don’t win you anything. The boys have to apply themselves, and you have to provide the right environment for them to do it.”
More young prospects have come into the team in the form of James Garrity and the Gray brothers, Ryan and Liam, while Daire Gallagher and Ruairi Kelly have been impressive at centre back and full back respectively.
“Yes, we have the Donnellys and Brennans who are playing county football, but you’d like to see yourself as an all-round team. Our displays are the sum of their parts of the whole team. Everybody has their roles to play, and there is no extra burden on the star names. We don’t regard them as star names, they’re all team members.”
On the face of it, Trillick’s 4-12 to 0-7 win over neighbouring rivals Dromore in the first round might appear facile, but Donnelly disagrees.
“I’ve said it before, a lot of people might have thought that Dromore game was easy for us, it certainly wasn’t. For the first 20 minutes, it was nip and tuck. Our keeper Joe Maguire made a fantastic save early on that would have put them five up at one stage, then suddenly you’re in a totally different ball game. It’s wee things that get you over hurdles in the championship and get you through it.”
Trillick carried that impressive form into their quarter-final victory over Clonoe, before facing county champions Coalisland in what was a hugely gripping and entertaining semi-final at Pomeroy two weeks ago.
Na Fianna led 0-9 to 0-7 at the break, but an outstanding second half from Trillick characterised by Lee Brennan’s flawless free-taking resulted in a one-point win.
“We found a wee bit of belief in ourselves, and got scores at the crucial times,” says Donnelly of their second half showing. “There was a free kick for Coalisland missed at the end of the game that could have brought it to a replay, and who knows what could have happened that day. At halftime especially, I don’t think anyone from Trillick would have complained of a replay.”
That idea of games hinging on small moments is another aspect of championship football according to Donnelly, who refers back to the past few seasons when Trillick’s campaigns went in different directions.
“With age obviously there comes a wee bit more maturity and experience, but it comes down to lady luck sometimes. We were ahead against Omagh in a semi-final in 2017, we were ahead against Ardboe last year in the quarterfinal, but we just didn’t make the right decisions. I’m a firm believer that you make your own luck.”