THE MacRory Cup Final is considered to be the blue riband event of Ulster Colleges football and this year’s final will be played in the new Morgan Athletic Grounds on the Bank Holiday Monday with a throw in time of 1.15pm. Testament to the drawing power of Ulster Colleges football is the fact that BBC will also show live coverage of the game on the day.
Local school St Patrick’s Maghera will be hoping the choice of venue is a lucky omen as they emerged victorious when they last contested a MacRory Cup final at this venue, although that was back in 1994. Monday’s final will see St Patrick’s Maghera face up to the boys from St Michael’s Enniskillen in what is a novel final pairing for the competition as, despite a very healthy rivalry at this and other age groups, these two schools have never before met in a MacRory final.
The respective schools have had periods of dominance in the competition with St Patrick’s holding twelve titles which they gathered mostly in a twenty year period from the mid-seventies when they were the dominant force in Colleges football while St Michael’s hold five titles and made it to four successive MacRory finals between 1999 and 2002.
The period between than and now has seen the Tyrone schools of Dungannon and Omagh to the fore in Colleges senior football and it was St Patrick’s Dungannon who defeated St Michael’s in 2008 – the last time either of Mondays finalists were in the MacRory Cup final. St Patrick’s last appearance at this stage of the competition was back in 2003 when they went on to win the national title also – the Hogan Cup under the captaincy of present Derry senior player Gerard O’Kane.
History will have little bearing on Monday’s game as sport tends to judge performers on how they perform on the day rather than what their history might be. In the knock-out stages so far both schools have shown tremendous levels of effort and determination to reach Monday’s final with the Fermanagh school having perhaps the slightly more impressive run in. They managed to overturn a heavy pre-Christmas defeat in the League Final to Omagh CBS on quarter-final day and that result would seem to have instilled the belief in their team that this could be their year to regain MacRory honours.
They also had to come from behind in that game and although Eddie Courtney was the star scorer with 6 points the efforts of Niall Beggan from wing half back in grabbing a goal in the first minute and also keeper Paddy Sweeney, who made a point blank save in the final minute, were two of the most significant plays in the entire game. Enniskillen enjoyed the lion’s share of possession at midfield through the tireless efforts of Ryan Hide, Rory Brennan and Brian McAleer, all of whom showed a desire to really go for possession off kick-outs, while the likes of the Cullen twins and half forwards Murphy and Maguire brought very typical St Michael’s aggression and work rate on the loose ball. That midfield platform was equally influential in their semi-final win over a strongly fancied St Patrick’s Armagh side and again the Fermanagh school had to call on all their reserves of character and resolve to come through a very tough challenge. Scoring opportunities were much harder to come by for both schools but St Michael’s showed that little bit more composure and made much better use of the chances which they created.
Again keeper Sweeney had a big bearing on the game saving a one-on-one from which St Michael’s duly attacked and grabbed what would be the match winning goal – despite playing against a stiff breeze. Those two hard fought games will certainly have been a major benefit to St Michael’s ahead of Monday’s big game as they have defied the odds on two occasions to qualify for the final and will be keen to take the final step towards MacRory victory on Monday.
St Patrick’s Maghera will certainly be familiar with the Athletic Grounds as they have played both their quarter and semi final games at the Armagh venue. Both those games saw the Derry boys take on Newry opposition with Abbey CBS ousted at quarter-final stage and the holders St Colman’s Newry defeated in the semi-final. St Patrick’s struggled in their quarter final game to get the better of Abbey despite having the better of the game in the possession stakes and it was only in the final minutes of the game that they managed first of all to pull themselves level through substitute Martin McCloskey’s goal, and then grabbed the winner with the last kick of the game through Gerald Bradley.
Notable on that occasion was the impact of the changes made by the Maghera management which were instrumental in getting their team over the line and in to the semi-final. That semi-final brought St Patrick’s up against reigning MacRory and Hogan champions, St Colman’s Newry and no doubt proved to be a sweet victory for the College over their traditional MacRory rivals of yesteryear.
The Newry school, however, fielded only three of the previous year’s winning team and St Colman’s never really got to grips with the intensity of the Maghera display on the day and it will be this level of work rate which St Patrick’s will need to at least match, and possibly better, if they are to triumph in Monday’s game.
Defensively St Patrick’s were very strong and assured against St Colman’s and rarely gave the Newry school any goal opportunities, something they will be keen to replicate against Enniskillen as St Michael’s have shown an ability to grab goals at crucial stages in their games to date.
Monday’s game is sure to attract quite a crowd as MacRory Cup final day always guarantees a passionate support for both teams as the respective school populations seem to be drawn to the event. Handling the atmosphere and the nerves of the big day will also be an issue for both teams as both will be hungry to inscribe their name on the MacRory Cup after a long wait for each school.
A new trophy will also be presented on the day as the original Cup has been retired so the winners will have the added honour of being the first name on that new MacRory Cup. Achieving that though will be a serious test of attitude, application to the task and team work for both teams. There seems little between the teams and the feeling all season has been that this is the most open MacRory Cup competition for a number of years, the opportunity now presents for one of the two schools to grab the initiative, stick to their game plan and get over the winning line with enough to spare. The ability to win enough possession in midfield will be a crucial area of the game but equally important will be the ability to use well possession won in this vital sector.
St Michael’s like to swarm this area of the field and create the opportunities for breaking ball and turnover possessions which is something St Patrick’s will not want to get sucked in to - they will surely need to target a fast paced game plan to make life difficult for that Enniskillen swarm. Defensively both teams have shown themselves to be very strong and rarely give up many scoring chances – being able to do that again on the big day will be very important. Important also though will be the ability of the respective forward lines to take responsibility and make the best use of the scoring chances which may present themselves as there promises to be very little between the teams.
This is a very difficult game to call a winner in – tradition may point to Maghera rejoining the elite of Colleges football but present form would suggest that Enniskillen have produced the bigger results since Christmas, despite not being considered as real contenders. That resolve and character, if not matched and bettered by Maghera, might well be enough to see Enniskillen first up the steps to collect that prestigious new trophy.