NIFRS fired up to go for historic All-Ireland glory
Following their Ulster success against the Belfast Solicitors last year, the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service football side now face Munster Champions Liebherr of Killarney in the All-Ireland inter-firm semi-final tomorrow at Jordanstown (2pm).
After 15 years existence as a club and nine years playing in the inter-firm series, NIFRS Commander and team manager Ronan O'Reilly admitted this success has been long awaited with the team only ever reaching Ulster semi-finals in the past along with a single success in the 'B' competition, where the bottom four teams played for a shield.
The Fire & Rescue Service now feel they have a point to prove and feel confident ahead of Saturday's game. Players at city stations have teamed up with rural teams from Armagh, Dungiven and Downpatrick to make up the representative squad.
In last year's Ulster final they defeated Belfast Solicitors 2-17 to 1-10, despite missing key men like former Antrim player Gavin Bell and All-Ireland Intermediate champion Conor Mullin of Cookstown.
Team training within the service can be problematic, with difficulties in organising and sustaining any sort of routine.
"That comes down to the shift patterns we do because it's just not feasible to get everybody together," said O'Reilly
He also revealed that players do become more keen to turn up to training in the run up to a final, and expects a full turnout with a panel of 24 for Saturday.
Within the Fire & Rescue Service, fitness is a major part of the job and the men are expected to maintain high levels at all times, measured in twice yearly tests.
"Everyone needs to reach that standard to stay on operational duty and if you don't, you are put behind a desk pretty much for six weeks until you raise your standards up," said O'Reilly.
The team is captained by Down's Peter Turley, who points out how the Fire Service team differs to any other due to the fact that the service is so widespread and involves a number of men from a range of areas.
As a current county player, Turley feels he has to live up to expectations, but admits he enjoys it and thrives on the responsibility. As he well knows, it cannot be a one man team and Turley speaks confidently of some of the rising players within the side.
"Conor Mullin is as good a full-forward as I have played with. Tim Harney is excellent also; we have a lot of good players," he said.
Former Down coach Paul Murphy acts as Turley's watch commander and so understands the difficulties he can face in balancing work and county football training. Turley admits his job is very rare among any footballers he knows, but is grateful to the service who allow him to manage both his fire-fighting career alongside his football.
"It is a brilliant occupation," he said. "Yes, there is a lot of shift work and switching around, but the likes of today I was off all day so I could be at the gym or recovering, or out for a run. You get a lot of time off as well as working long hours – that works for me."
His Down manager James McCartan is happy for Turley to turn out for the service thanks to his ability to simultaneously work around shifts and county training.
"The Fire Service are being very good with me," the Downpatrick man explained.
"They work with me and allowing people to cover my shifts. So I explained to James and it was our way of paying them back if he would allow me to play in this tournament. He said it was fine."
This Friday marks the retirement of club chairman and group commander Aidan Magennis from Glenavy, after 30 years. He was heavily involved with the club from its infancy until now and O'Reilly said: "Our semi-final is the day after he retires so it's a bit poignant, it's something to grasp and make his year of retirement the year we get to the All-Ireland final."
The Liebherr team of Killarney, who manufacture cranes by day, will be no easy battle for the fire service They defeated last year's All-Ireland winners, the Limerick Prison Officers, in the Munster Final 1-13 to 2-6.