Slaughtneil and Kilcar are braced for big showdown
An interesting graphic popped up on Twitter via the @GAA_Stats handle this week.
It detailed the number of games played in provincial and All-Ireland series, club by club, since the competitions were approved and officially staged in 1970-71, and their ultimate result.
As you might expect, Crossmaglen Rangers are at the top of that tree on appearances with 85 games played after winning the Armagh Championship, lifting 58 of them on their way to six All-Ireland titles, one behind Nemo Rangers, who have played 83 games with an astonishing win percentage of 78%.
These kind of figures take several generations to amass, but one man who saw it all from his post between the posts was Crossmaglen goalkeeper Paul Hearty.
During 21 years of playing, he only missed a handful of games through a leg break sustained in a car accident when Jarlath McConville deputised, when his honeymoon took precedence over a fixture against Mullahoran, and when tonsillitis kept him out of the 2012 Errigal Ciaran game.
Surely he must miss being in the fray on weekends such as this, when Kilcar attempt to slay the double-headed beast of Slaughtneil, and either Derrygonnelly or Cavan Gaels are set to advance to the Ulster final for the first ever time.
"There is a certain sort of romance in it, playing football in October, November on the dark nights and heading away on the frosty mornings playing an Ulster Club match," mused Hearty as he attempts to get used to life on Civvy Street again. The gloves are now hung up, although he stays in shape with regular gym visits. You never know…
Part of him would want to be in Slaughtneil's shoes this weekend. With the other side of the draw not quite as beefy, many are tipping their semi-final against Kilcar - replete with Ryan, Eoin and Mark McHugh, the McBreartys, Patrick and Stephen, along with old stager Michael Hegarty - as the Ulster final in all but name.
Last time out, Slaughtneil scrapped their way through a feisty game against Omagh, earning the tag 'the new Crossmaglen' from rival boss Paddy Crozier.
Although you have to amass a whole load of silverware before you can truly earn the title, Hearty knows where Crozier was coming from.
"I think there are similarities, definitely," he conceded.
"That is the sign of a really good team, that they pull out a result in a game that they possibly shouldn't have won, those games that are dogged, you haven't played well for 15 minutes and then you get a purple patch and you scrape over the line by a point or two in the dying minutes.
"That takes real resilience and character and real fight and grit to get a result like that. A lot of teams when they are put to the pin of their collar like that would crumble. They could play well for most of the game and then they would be pipped at the post. I know these are clichés, but you have to say it is a never-say-die attitude. They have been around a good few times, their hurlers are there as well, they have played more Championship games than most.
"So they have that feeling and they know to play to the final whistle."
It has long been said that a team have to serve a certain apprenticeship in the Ulster Club series to land the prize. But that does not seem to apply to Derry clubs. Conleith Gilligan was on the Ballinderry team that finally reversed two Oak Leaf final defeats to Bellaghy in 2001, and they simply kept ploughing on until they won the All-Ireland under Brian McIver.
Asked how you establish yourself among Ulster Club company, he feels it's all in the rearing.
"Our big aim was to win the Championship," he said. "But once we had won the Championship, the tradition in Derry was that Bellaghy, Lavey, they had come out and won Ulster.
"While it wasn't planned for initially, we went on a bit of a run and made the final. We had seen other teams do it so it wasn't beyond the possibilities."
You have to wonder how it happens for some and not for others. Tyrone clubs, barring Errigal Ciaran, for example, have an appalling record in Ulster. And yet when Slaughtneil beat the reigning Ulster champions Ballinderry in the Derry final of 2014, they never looked sideways until they were climbing the steps of the Athletic Grounds having fashioned themselves into champions.
Gilligan recalled: "They thought, 'Well, Ballinderry have done it, the Loup have done it, Bellaghy have done it, why can't we?' And then they did do it. And whoever comes out of Derry thinks they have a chance."
Kilcar are the latest to come up against the Derry men. Gilligan doesn't dispute the theory that the eventual winners should come from this side of the draw.
He added: "You wouldn't want to disrespect either Derrygonnelly or Cavan Gaels, but I would imagine that both teams are preparing and thinking, 'If we can get over this, it's ours to lose'.
"Now, they still can lose it, but they are very much looking at it as this could be their final."