Belfast Telegraph

Little clubs blessed with huge hearts

By Declan Bogue

Apparently it is a quirk of personality that Glenswilly's bright young manager Gary McDaid tends to wear shorts all the time on the sideline. While other managers at this time of year are walking advertisements for ski and mountaineering wear, McDaid will be pacing the sidelines in damp trainers and shorts.

As he stood on the Healy Park pitch after the game speaking to journalists, he acknowledged the scale of their achievement in reaching an Ulster final, saying, "We have 300 houses in the parish, we don't even have a town. We have a tiny wee crossroads and three pubs in it. That's it, it's a club right in the middle of the Glen."

Our habit of marvelling at small clubs and how they defy the odds shows a lack of considered judgement.

There should be no wonder at all. A set-up like Glenswilly, paradoxically, are the ideal conditions for a team to flourish in the Ulster club.

Let us explain. By the findings of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Crossmaglen is classified as a village, with a population of around 1,600 according to the latest census.

In the last 10 years, only three clubs have won the Ulster senior club football title; Crossmaglen, the Loup and St Gall's. The Loup is not much more than a crossroads and a pub.

St Gall's have won two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland. They are an outlier in that they hail from an area of large population. However, they also won their last Ulster and the subsequent All-Ireland with the help of the Fermanagh brothers, Rory and Ronan Gallagher, who moved to the locality in order to take up employment.

In recent years, the chances of any team from a town winning the major prizes have grown remote. It is not like this in other provinces, illustrated by Portlaoise's success in Leinster and Dr Croke's emergence on the national scene.

In Ulster, we don't give up our traditions without a fight. The belief that 'Townie teams are soft' still applies in the Ulster club.

Only Bryansford, who draw their players from the medium-sized town of Newcastle, could be described as a townie team that have won an Ulster. That was back in 1969 and 1970, before the competition took hold of the popular imagination.

Clan na Gael of Lurgan scooped up three-in-a-row between '72 and '74, although they were hardly drawing from an area of large population given the competition among Lurgan clubs for players. You might call Castleblayney, winners in 1986 and 1991 a 'town' if you like, but you are referring to a population smaller than Moira. Then there is St John's, but we exclude them from these circumstances for largely the same reasons we exclude St Gall's.

There are no clubs from Derry city that even threaten at senior level within their county, never mind in Ulster. Newry also does not have a team to challenge. The same for Omagh, or any of the clubs from Armagh city.

Letterkenny has almost 20,000 people living in it, yet St Eunan's have yet to feature in an Ulster club final. On the outskirts of that town, Glenswilly have roughly 300 chimney pots in the parish and they are heading back to Omagh in less than a fortnight to take on Ballinderry.

Ballinderry! There's another one. Not much more than a hitching-post, they have a mere 350 families, most of whom would do their shopping in local towns Cookstown, Coalisland, Magherafelt and also nearby Dungannon.

The closest any town team has came to lifting the Seamus McFerran Cup in recent times was the Enniskillen Gaels editions of 1999 and 2002. Over a decade on however, and they found themselves losing heavily in the Ulster Intermediate Championship to Tyrone's Eskra Emmetts; a club located in a dip of the Clogher Valley with the obligatory couple of pubs at a crossroads.

Is there a real reason for any of this, other than the suspicion that in small, rural areas there is a great connection with place and few distractions? Incidentally, it has been in the Intermediate Ulster club Championship where town teams have had recent success with Cookstown, Coleraine and Lisnaskea all winners in the last decade.

The reason we bring this up is because there has been much landfill written about Dublin, their population, and the squillion bucks they are now drawing down from new sponsors AIG, as if money is a factor in Gaelic football.

But the Dubs have won three All-Irelands in 30 years. During the Celtic Tiger years they also had vast sums of money, but no Sam Maguire.

The main attribute on Gaelic football, as displayed by Glenswilly and Ballinderry, is still heart and pride of place, not numbers or finance.

And nothing can buy that.

Belfast Telegraph

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