Maghery emerge from flood for a tilt at Ulster glory
It started off as the worst year ever for the people of Maghery Sean McDermotts. In January, a hard rain fell. Consistent. Unremitting. The Maghery club lies snug in an elbow of Derrywarragh Island on Lough Neagh. The rising tides flowed into the premises. The clubhouse, the pitch, the oil boiler for the club house, the shed for all the equipment were all submerged.
How high is the water, mamma? Three feet high, and rising…
Claiming off their insurance was a no-go, due to the £25,000 excess charge the club would have had to foot in order to trigger a payment. Raw sewage was floating around the place. The club - literally - were in the shit.
What else would they do, only go again. The committee began the restoration project, checking the electrics and doing what needed to be done.
One saving grace was that they didn't need the field for senior pre-season training yet. Without floodlights it wouldn't have been possible anyway but their new manager, Shane McConville had the panel running the roads of Lurgan nightly, to the amusement of neighbouring clubs.
Now, they stand 60-odd minutes away from an Ulster club final. The club that had never won any county Championships. The natural outsiders in their own county, Islandmen as well as on the fringes of Tyrone - one sideline of their pitch running alongside the county border of the River Blackwater.
And, although we would hardly stand in Crossmaglen Square and say it at the top of our voices, it's refreshing to have new representatives from Armagh at this time of the year, making their way to Newry for one of those traditional skin-and-hair-flying Ulster club matches this Sunday against Kilcoo.
Club Chairman Sean Cushnahan tells of a number of years when the club committee pleaded with McConville to take the senior job. Winning league titles in 2012 and 2013 signposted their potential. Narrow losses to Cross in the Championship semi-finals of those years confirmed it.
This year, it suited him.
"We knew Shane McConville is a born winner," enthuses Cushnahan.
"He has a track record in St Paul's where he won Championships. We knew we weren't going into the unknown. He has been about Armagh football and knows every club inside out. He ticked all the boxes as far as we were concerned."
It wasn't McConville's first rodeo. As a 26-year-old headstrong player on the fringes of the county panel, he took on the management of his own club, St Paul's, in 1989. They reached their one and only county final, where they were beaten by Armagh Harps.
Such were his performances on the pitch, along with handling the team management that he went straight into the Armagh panel once the county final was over.
A couple of years ago he was back in charge of St Paul's and delivered an Intermediate title.
"Absolutely nothing compares to that, to winning with your own club," he recalls, but Maghery's win over Cullyhanna for their maiden title came close.
"Without getting carried away about it, it was humbling to tell you the God's honest truth. To see what it brought to people inside Maghery. It made me realise what I have done as a manager," he said.
"To bring that satisfaction, so many things to closure… All the times you 'shoulda' and 'coulda', all the Championships you didn't. Being the manager that put all that together, that helped to get it over the line was great."
He won't spoof. Not everything he did this year was perfect. Nor was it intended to be.
At times, he needed blind faith.
A discussion with selector Gary McConville led to a eureka moment. Gary is a physio who was met another Gary - Gary O'Hanlon - who was competing in a world endurance running event in Dubai.
At the time, O'Hanlon was working with the Louth footballers and they kept each other's details.
O'Hanlon had been a promising runner from Drogheda who was bound for a running scholarship at an American College before he was hit in a road accident. But after years of reconstructive recovery, he was back in the groove.
Shane went to Dundalk to meet O'Hanlon. They talked about the science of peaking for Championship. McConville was fully prepared that their league form might go in the midst of a heavy training block, but accepted it.
O'Hanlon took the players on runs through Lurgan town. Other clubs found themselves amused by this experiment and some Maghery men themselves were puzzled. They were footballers, not harriers.
"I had a couple of rocky times through the season with it," admits McConville.
"It took me a while to convince them this was the right thing; to keep at them.
"I run with them to tell the truth. From the point of view of the feeling you have sitting in a changing room with nothing left. Standing in a shower after a massive week of what Gary O'Hanlon was putting them through…"
For Cushnahan's part, they had full faith. "There is no point in having a dog if you are going to do the barking yourself!"
If the players needed convincing, it came during a training session on Valentine's Day.
O'Hanlon was taking the session when McConville interrupted it briefly to tell his players that their 41-year-old trainer had not only won the Irish 50k race the previous day in Donadea, not only shaved 14 seconds off the record, but had ran the last mile in five minutes ten seconds.
"'This is what this man has done, this is how he goes about his business. He is not training you to run like him, but he will get you to be where we want to be at the end of the year,'" McConville told them.
And so they are where they wanted to be at the end; Armagh champions.
Or is it?
"I have said it to any person that there are two big games in any team in the year. And Maghery, to this day, have not hit 75% yet. There is an awful lot more in us."
In the meantime, Cushnahan gets on with the work needed to keep this show on the road.
Before the county final, McConville insisted that the team would drive in their own cars, rather than hire a swanky bus for the day. Unbeknownst to players and management, the committee hired a bus for the return leg, sensing there would be a lot of champagne in the dressing rooms.
Every upright object in Maghery is now festooned in good luck signs from families and local businesses, wishing them well against Kilcoo. A club calendar is also in the works for stocking fillers.
"We have a goal, and that goal is to win an Ulster Championship," McConville states. "We firmly believe that we can win it.
Ulster Club SFC semi-final:
Pairc Esler, Sunday, 2.30 pm