Ambitious Glen aim to make first final one to remember
As you might expect for a club taking part in their first-ever Derry county final, the hype around Watty Graham's, Glen was ticking over nicely until last Thursday.
Derry Post journalist Michael McMullan was constructing their 22-page supplement for the county finals when he noticed the Maghera-based club had an unexpected face in their pen pics; that of Conor Glass, the flame-haired sensation who exploded this season across the Australian Football League in the brown and gold of Hawthorn.
Never mind that Glass has not played Gaelic football in years. McMullan tweeted the picture along with 'Let the mind games begin'. If the hype was building nicely, McMullan towed it uphill like the foreboding long climb at the start of the rollercoaster ride.
On Monday, McMullan took the paper and the 22 pages on the finals off stone. Come Thursday, Derry County Board signed off on a bumper 56-page programme. Yesterday, BBCNI's outside broadcast units were across St Mary's School and with their opponents Magherafelt O'Donovan Rossa to capture the novelty of it all.
BBC sports presenter Thomas Niblock - himself a former Magherafelt player - made an evocative short video clip speaking to Gerry O'Loughlin, captain when they last won it in 1978, that has been viewed over 40,000 times.
But up against a Glen club that have never watched their players march behind the band on county final day there are unexplored levels of excitement.
Such as those experienced by John J McKenna. He first lined out for the club as a nine-year-old in their Under-12s. This Christmas he will turn 76 and has spent his life playing and tending to the pitches of his club, as well as serving as vice chairperson presently.
"Everybody is on a high at the moment. We have the bunting up. All the geriatrics have an inch onto their step at the minute, including myself!" he jokes.
It will come as a surprise to many that this is their first. The town has always carried a lofty reputation for football, but it was the school, St Pat's Maghera, who were responsible for that with their five Hogan and 15 MacRory Cup successes.
In 1993, the club had three starters on the Derry team that won the All-Ireland in brothers Feargal P and Damian McCusker, Enda Gormley as corner-forward and Gary McGill on the panel.
But it wasn't until Gormley himself rehauled their youth structures - turning that into four Ulster minor club titles from 2011 to 2014 and following it up with three provincial Under-21 titles in '15, '16 and '17 - that they began to dream.
"The oldest player we have now (Michael Warnock) has not turned 26 yet. There are actually two boys playing on the senior team who are 17 years of age," McKenna points out.
"I think they have got a bit older, and the introduction of four new boys who have made their debut this year, and they have really set the place alight; Alex Doherty, Ethan Doherty, Conleth McGuckin and Eunan Mulholland, boys like that who are only 17, 17 and a half.
"The four of them have got their place they are going that well in training."
If this was to be their year, then they certainly hid themselves in the long grass. A sterling league campaign saw them drop just one point and they ended up in a league final against their decorated country neighbours, Slaughtneil, who handed them a 20-point walloping.
The week after, seeking a morale boost, they went in search of a competitive challenge and played Antrim champions Cargin, but again were demolished.
In their first round championship match against Loup, they went a man and a goal down early on, but straightened themselves up to get through. In the next round against last year's finalists Lavey they were 0-6 to 0-0 behind after 13 minutes until the 17-year-old Alex Doherty scored a wonder goal after a 40-yard run.
In that instance their championship was transformed, peaking with their two-point dethroning of Slaughtneil in the semi-final.
Will Glass feature? It's not inconceivable that he could play tomorrow.
"Two years ago, there was a lot of talk about him playing against Slaughtneil in the semi-final and he wasn't even in the country," explains Michael McMullan.
"But he is definitely home. I saw him with my own two eyes on Wednesday.
"My gut feeling is that he is not going to play because if you were trying to keep it under wraps, you wouldn't put him in the local paper, or send it to a local journalist that is going to tweet it later that day."
It's just another layer to a most novel day as the Watty's faithful make their climb up the A6 towards Celtic Park.
"We have great support, but I don't know what will happen if they win it. The place will go mad," laughs McKenna heartily.
"I take it cool, I don't get involved. I don't drink first of all, so I will keep it low key, but I would really revel in it to be quite honest.
"It would be the greatest thing ever to happen to this town and club."