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Minor event is major success at the St Paul's tournament

 

Armagh Harps celebrate their 2003 win over Carrickmacross
Armagh Harps celebrate their 2003 win over Carrickmacross
Conor Love sits on captain Eoin Beacom’s shoulders as Enniskillen Gaels enjoy their 2017 final win over Ballinascreen
Glen players mark their fourth Ulster title in a row in 2014
A famous name lifts the trophy in 2005 as Errigal Ciaran’s Barry Canavan celebrates
Barry Tierney after Omagh’s 2009 win
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Today at 12 noon at the St Paul's Shaw's Road pitch, the ball will be thrown in between Kilcoo (Down) and Cappagh (Tyrone) minors to signal the start of the 38th St Paul's Ulster Minor Club Championship tournament.

Later on today, Armagh champions Silverbridge will face Donegal's Termon on the grounds of Coláiste Feirste and the entire competition will be well and truly underway, heading for its fifth decade in existence.

It is a gem of GAA activity at a time when most are drawn to the stove in the corner, with attendances reaching up towards 4,000 for the final on New Year's Day. What's most impressive is how the west Belfast club have managed to keep the competition thriving in the face of, if not opposition, then certainly a lack of wholehearted support down through the years.

Brian Coyle, the long-serving ladies football manager for St Paul's, was one of the very first people who identified the idea and pursued it.

"Basically, we had a very, very successful minor team for a few years, unbeaten in Antrim, and I thought, 'you know what, if the seniors can go on in Ulster, why can't minors?'" he explains.

"So I started it then with Tony McGee from the Irish News, at that time he was giving me a helping hand, getting me phone numbers for county secretaries and assisting me in that way.

"Mickey Feeney was the Ulster secretary at that time. He said you can't have a nine-team tournament, which meant me and Tony looked at a different way of doing it, so we split it up into a southern and a northern section," he adds.

So Brian and another couple of St Paul's men took a trip down to the Killyhevlin Hotel outside Enniskillen, where they met with Jim Tummon of Enniskillen Gaels.

They decided they would host a 'southern Ulster conference' with teams from Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal playing off.

And from there on, it has become a - for want of a different word - fixture.

"The whole idea was to get minors on a level par with men's teams," Coyle says.

"We actually ran an All-Ireland one year when we had teams such as one from Offaly, Ferbane, who went on to win it. We only played once in the All-Ireland series.

"Nemo Rangers were in it too and it was too hard to organise and other provinces weren't as well organised as Ulster," he explains.

The cast of players who have featured is something else.

From the early days, Paul Brewster of Enniskillen Gaels, Dermot McNicholl of Glenullin, along with Brian and Aidan Donnelly of the host club and Manus Boyle of Killybegs, right up to the present day and the likes of Conor Glass, who was an integral part of the Glen, Maghera team that captured four consecutive titles from 2011 to 2014.

But it doesn't run by itself and a huge debt of gratitude belongs to Rob Murphy, the organiser within the club, according to St Paul's current chairman Paul Stephenson.

"We have a committee headed up by Robert Murphy. He is our assistant treasurer. Himself and Billy McLarnon - Billy has been helping to run the tournament now for over 20 years," stated Stephenson.

"They make it very easy because they have been doing it for so long.

"We are immensely proud of it and year-on-year it just gets bigger and better.

"It's a volunteer effort and is very easy for us as a club because there are so many come out to support it.

"The crowds that come out to see it are increasing. For last year's final we must have had three or four thousand people there, which is unprecedented for that time of year."

What they come for is a constant raising of the bar.

They thought they had seen good teams down through the years and, indeed, that successful Glen team had superstars, but last year's champions Bellaghy blew everyone, and all opposition, away.

"Probably one of the best teams I have seen play in it," says Stephenson. "Even including the team that won four in a row.

"Bellaghy were extremely strong, from one to 15, not reliant on individuals, as a team they were exceptional."

Modern life has its advantages. Coyle compares the advances in technology as being a huge aid to the staging and organising now.

"The draw, now you see them being broadcast on different websites. We used to make the draw in our kitchen with a couple of witnesses," he says.

"I mean, my telephone bill was unbelievable back in those days. You would have got it in the ear from the wife; 'are you on that phone again?'"

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