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All-Ireland Football Final: Francis McEldowney lauds Mickey Moran's influence

By Declan Bogue

Ask Slaughtneil captain Francis McEldowney about his experiences playing in Croke Park for Derry and he starts counting them on his fingers.

One… two… three… four. League finals against Kerry. League matches against Dublin, other days against the Laois' and Westmeaths of this world.

Mixed results. "They're days you'd rather forget," he says in passing.

Which is just another reason why today's All-Ireland club final stands out so much for the 33-year-old.

"This is something new for everybody," he begins.

"Going to play football in Croke Park with the boys you grew up with, the boys you've played football with all your life out on that pitch, to come this far is amazing.

"It's been some journey. It's been worth it. There's been a lot of hard work down through the ages, but it's well worth it now."

No use digging up the old 'wide open spaces of Croker' cliché either.

Not to a side that have played all their Derry and one Ulster Championship game at the Owenbeg facility outside Dungiven.

McEldowney explains: "It's exactly the dimensions of Croke Park. Owenbeg has definitely helped us this year.

"You're prepared for it. You have that work done, you know the spaces and you know it's going to be big. It's nothing new to us."

A veteran of the 2004 Derry Championship win - their only triumph before they captured the John McLaughlin Cup last autumn in dramatic circumstances over champions Ballinderry - McEldowney believes that the margin between success and failure in Derry is fine.

"Every year you go out, you target a Derry championship, same as every club in Derry," he states.

"On any given day, you could beat any team in Derry, but it's the same for seven or eight teams.

"The last 10 years, if you look at our own results, it's been a kick of a ball that we lost by in most of our matches.

"This year it's just reversed. There's been a kick of the ball in matches but we've been on the right side of them."

And the difference this year?

"A wee bit of belief," he answers.

"Mickey's (Moran) come in and put a bit of belief in us. You have younger boys that have come in and helped the thing as well.

"We just never give up until the final whistle. You come to those tight matches, there's only a point or two in it, if you keep going until the end there's no reason why you can't come out on the right side of it."

And how tight some of those games were, like the time Dungiven's Mark Craig unleashed a thunderbolt shot past goalkeeper Antoin McMullan that crashed off the crossbar and bounced smack bang on the goal-line.

Or coming back from the dead against Austin Stacks in the All-Ireland semi-final.

"Whenever they got the two penalties, it looked bad for us at that stage," recalls McEldowney.

"There was still a good bit to go until half time and you were nearly thinking, 'this could end up even worse before half time'. But thankfully we got back into it.

"Austin Stacks probably played some of their better football in the second half. That's something we'll have to look at and rectify before the final."

At the time of the Slaughtneil press night, their captain was insisting of their final opponents Corofin: "We haven't seen a lot of them. We'll be watching more DVDs in the next couple of weeks, but we saw a wee bit of them against St Vincent's and their inside forward line was very sharp, and they're going to take a lot of watching.

"We're just going to have to do our homework on it and man up."

St Patrick's Day in Croke Park is one of those occasions when the GAA can reconnect with its parish roots. This might be the last time the club finals are hosted on the day, but McEldowney insists all that significance counts for little when you have your head inside the team bubble.

"Whenever you're at it, you're training for it, you don't have a lot of time to really think about it," he says.

"You're just preparing for the match and you try not to let your head wander too much. You just get on with it. We're just preparing the way we have for every other match this year."

In the meantime, the rest of the parish will get gloriously carried away with themselves.

"People still can't believe what the club has achieved this year, and how it has been achieved, in everything. Football, hurling, reserve football and hurling, underage, camogie," he pointed out.

And he finishes with a line that could be purloined by AIB and used in next year's marketing campaign: "With the support we've had all year you couldn't be from a better place."

That's all that needs to be said.

AI Club Football Final: Slaughtneil v Corofin, Croke Park, (4.00pm)

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