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Ballinderry's Conleith Gilligan chases Ulster glory

By Declan Bogue

It was this weekend last year when the GAA public pondered one of those existential questions that goes right to the very core of each member.

Errigal Ciaran had won their first Tyrone title in six years and had already seen off Mullahoran in the Ulster preliminary round. They were drawn to face Ballinderry Shamrocks and then it happened. In the dressing room after the Mullahoran game, Errigal manager Ronan McGuckin told his players he would step aside for this game, against the club he played for and captained.

In the end, assistant manager Tommy McDermott took over, and Errigal beat Ballinderry.

Sunday morning coaching sessions are the lifeblood of Ballinderry Shamrocks. They are led by Ronan McGuckin and Conleith Gilligan. Being married to two sisters, the situation at the time was too close to home for discussion.

"It was joked about in passing but nobody really wanted to talk about it. Ronan and I are married to two sisters so I sort of stayed away and ignored it and he did the same," recalls Gilligan a year on.

He continues: "At the time we didn't think it was a factor. I suppose after that happened we only came to realise that it did have an effect. More so it galvanised them and drove them on.

"We were maybe a bit complacent because they were without a manager, in hindsight it was very, very disappointing. Getting beat so early on and not getting a run at all."

Gilligan doesn't make a habit of watching any upcoming opposition. He didn't join the several Ballinderry men who went to the Tyrone county final to check out their competition but one quiet Sunday, when he found himself at home for once, he flicked on TG4's coverage of the club Championships.

He settled down to watch the Monaghan county final and was delighted to see the Hughes brothers land their first senior title, but at the time he wasn't aware that they were on a collision course with Scotstown this Sunday in Clones.

And when they line out this Sunday, there will be the last remnants of the team that won an All-Ireland almost 11 years ago on the boggy surface of Semple Stadium. A couple of years ago, a few cars would depart from Ballinderry filled with Gilligan, Michael McIver, Enda Muldoon, Mickey Conlan, Kevin McGuckin and James Conway heading for Derry training in Owenbeg.

Now, all men are retired from the county scene and are raging against the dying light of their careers. Only they are in the privileged position of playing out in Broadway, rather than some sideshows.

Being close to the pitch, Gilligan explains, "frees up a couple of hours every night where at least you are at home before training and at home a reasonable time after training. It makes a big difference to us.

"There are wives at home that might disagree on that subject, but definitely you get a wee bit more time. It makes life a bit easier in the run-up to things, like when the training steps up and you go from two nights a week to three."

Gilligan and Conlon in particular have become famous for their dedication to early-morning shifts in the Ballinderry gym. When the rest of the world is asleep with snow on the ground, both men can be found pushing themselves. Why do they do it?

Because they are bookending two great teams.

"The big change this past couple of years has been the influx of six, seven, eight younger boys in their late teens that have taken the thing on to another level. Everybody, especially the older boys, are just trying to hang in there with them, because they have definitely added something to it."

Drawing comparisons with other editions of this team throughout his career he adds: "The All-Ireland club-winning team I suppose under-performed after they won. Then there was a lull for a couple of years, another team came back and won a couple and then we have this current team that have won three-in-a-row now.

"I would always look back to the finals that we lost and they still hurt, more so than the finals that we enjoyed winning."

Gilligan feels this team are now seriously well-equipped to chase glory in Ulster.

"The younger boys ... going out of their county and playing teams from outside their county doesn't faze them.

"A lot of them played with Derry minors and universities and 21s and that stuff, so playing in Ulster doesn't concern them. They are ready to go."

Just how ready, we will see for ourselves on Sunday.

Belfast Telegraph

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