Errigal manager's love affair with tournament goes on
In the storied recent history of the Ulster Club Championship, several names became instantly recognisable as the enforcers of their teams.
Men who put the hand up when matches were there to be won on harsh, cold and wet days.
Crossmaglen have supplied their share; men like John Donaldson and Francie Bellew, the two McEntees and right up to this edition with David McKenna.
Paul Brewster was the figurehead of the Enniskillen Gaels side that dominated their own domain a decade ago, and of course there was Dermot Morris from Gowna.
Ballinderry Shamrocks had several Ulster club raids over the past decade and right among the engine room was where the granite figure of Ronan McGuckin (pictured below) could be located.
Nowadays he is the manager of Errigal Ciaran and having led them to their first Tyrone Championship in six years almost a fortnight ago, they now begin Ulster club exploits with a tricky trip away to face Cavan champions Mullahoran in Breffni Park on Sunday.
After the final win over defending Tyrone champions Dromore, McGuckin admitted that the next step was far from his mind, saying: “Look, it's been something that hasn't been thought about. When you are meeting Dromore in a county final, you don't even look in that direction.”
Looking back on the final now, he touches on what was a special time for all: “The whole experience of the run-up to the county final, the county final day itself and the homecoming basically reinforced my views on all that I thought and knew about Errigal.
“They are a fantastic club, there are a multitude of very special people within the club, from players and committee level and supporters.
“I have huge respect for them and I can see now why they have been so successful down through the past 20 years,” he says.
That was then, and this is now. In his own playing career, McGuckin came up against Cavan opposition twice in the Ulster semi-final; Cavan Gaels in 2001 when his Shamrocks club went all the way to the All-Ireland title, and again the county town team in 2008 when they booked their passage to two thrilling finals against Crossmaglen that they ultimately lost.
Mullahoran will be a different challenge. McGuckin admits to watching a DVD of their final replay against Kingscourt last weekend.
“My first thought having watched it was the sheer physicality of Mullahoran, the size of the team they have and how they use it to their advantage,” he says.
“We have a huge challenge ahead of us here in Breffni Park. It's going to be a very tough, typical Ulster club game.”
When the going got tough, inevitably it was men like McGuckin who set the tone in the Ulster club.
He knows the magic of this tournament and how it can be harnessed.
“I think, and I would be slightly biased as all us Ulster Gaels would be, but I think it is the best Gaelic football competition that there is,” he says.
“There's something very, very special about the Ulster club.
“There are very few teams, apart from maybe the Crossmaglens and St Gall's, that can maybe pitch themselves for the Ulster club every year — everybody else is coming into it and it's almost bonus territory.
“You are coming up against teams in the main that you have no history with and you are experiencing playing against them for the first time.
“The shackles are off, there's maybe a wee bit less pressure and it's just a fantastic competition.”
The lack of preparation time leaves it that teams are less likely to stifle each other, he explains.
“It's basically a case of both teams coming out on the day and going at each other.
“There's a lot to be said for that too because it means it's going to be a bit more attacking,” he says.
And while the game on Sunday is taking place, he will be missing the Derry final, his beloved Shamrocks meeting Slaughtneil.
It's the first Championship match he has missed as a player or spectator since 1997, and that was due to a spell in hospital.
You have to go back to 1991 for the next game he missed.
“This is a wrench for me to be missing that game, especially with the backdrop that it was originally fixed for last Sunday and I thought that all the stars were lining up for me and I was going to get to see the game,” McGuckin says.
“But such is life I suppose, and I'm just hoping for good news when I come off the pitch regarding Ballinderry.”