Old hands can drive Clontibret to Ulster club joy
Clontibret manager John McEntee enjoyed a glittering player at club and county level with Crossmaglen Rangers and Armagh, an impressive medals haul bearing testimony to his gigantic contribution to the progress of both sides.
In the colours of Rangers, McEntee scooped 14 Armagh County Championship medals, eight Ulster gongs and five All-Ireland honours, which were complemented by an All-Ireland medal, six Ulster medals and a National League honour at county level.
Yet when McEntee, now the manager of Clontibret, sends his team out to face Donegal champions Naomh Conaill in tomorrow night's Ulster Club Championship semi-final tie at Healy Park, Omagh, he will look to three players only marginally younger than himself to plot the side's arrival into the provincial decider.
Vinny Corey (36), Dessie Mone (34) and Conor McManus (32), as they have done for more years than they might care to remember, find themselves in the vanguard of a line-up that has already claimed the scalp of McEntee's former club and has seen the odds on their prospects of becoming provincial champions shorten considerably.
They are not alone in gracing the Ulster Club Championship stage at a period in their lives when their other counterparts may have ridden off into the sunset. Kevin Cassidy (44) is still doing the business for Derrygonnelly Harps, Conor Laverty (33) is as agile as ever with Kilcoo and Aaron Kernan (36) continues to fulfil a lead role for Crossmaglen.
It was in Clontibret's quarter-final win over Crossmaglen where Corey's short, sharp bursts proved devastating up front, Mone's assured link play was central to the team's strategy and the half-dozen points that flowed from the boot of McManus cemented a hard-earned victory.
And, just as has been the case for several years now, Clontibret will go into tomorrow night's match cushioned by belief while relying on their towering work ethic to take them through.
"At the end of the day, players must have confidence in their own ability and they have to believe in the game plan," points out McEntee.
"The three matches which Naomh Conaill played against Gaoth Dobhair before they eventually won the Donegal title and the way they went out four days afterwards and beat Castlerahan in their Ulster quarter-final shows the calibre of the team they are.
"They have experience in their side, just like we have, and they have acquired a winning mentality."
Captain Brian Greenan, midfield ace Killian Lavelle and full-back Conor Boyle are other vital components in a Clontibret side which robbed Scotstown of what would have been their fifth title on the trot in the recent Monaghan county final.
It's his team's work ethic and the inspiration that his old hands can inject into their psyche that convinces McEntee they have the chance to come good again against what he reckons is "a very well-drilled side."
"I think it's important that we focus on Naomh Conaill as a team and not just earmark some of their individual players," he adds. "When you get to this stage of the Ulster Championship, you know that you are going to come up against quality opposition and, in my view, we will be meeting a very well-drilled side no matter how you look at it."
"Yes, they have their big players like Anthony Thompson, Leo McLoone and Ciaran Thompson, but they play well as a unit and they won't fear us."
"We have experience on board ourselves and this has been seen to good effect to date, but it does not guarantee us anything.
"Naomh Conaill have had time to recover following their game against Castlerahan and they will be ready for us, I am sure."
Down champions Glenn are, meanwhile, steeling themselves for a major task when they face Monaghan kingpins Magheracloone in their Ulster Club Intermediate quarter-final at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh on Sunday.
Glenn overcame Fermanagh champions Kinawley at the quarter-final stage and, although the experienced Corrigan brothers Tomas and Ruairi posed a big threat to their defence in that game, they face a potentially greater hazard this weekend given the superlative form that former Monaghan ace Tommy Freeman is revealing with Magheracloone, who also have the experienced Gavin Doogan in their arsenal.
Conor Cranny, who is one of the most experienced players in the Glenn side, accepts that his colleagues will have to improve even further if they are to reach the final.
"While we were delighted to get past Kinawley, we were always aware that this would see us come up against another high-quality side and Magheracloone have shown themselves to be just that," states Cranny.
"But we have been preparing well, we feel, and our manager Tony Bagnall has us in the right frame of mind.
"We would like to think that our supporters will get behind us and maybe help us to get over the line. It would be great for our club to get into an Ulster final as we feel this would bring us on."