Rocks are ready to roll

Owen Mulligan had another excellent game for Cookstown. TT4609-713DCA
Owen Mulligan had another excellent game for Cookstown. TT4609-713DCA

When Cookstown and Eskra will do battle for the Paddy Cullen Cup in Healy Park, it will be a rather special match because it marks the 50th anniversary of the inaugural Intermediate Football Championship Final in Tyrone, with Sunday’s favourites Cookstown the first team to win it, by defeating Galbally 3-4 to 0-2 in that 1962 decider.

Cookstown won it again in 1964, beating Stewartstown 2-5 to 1-5 before, in the early 90s the Intermediate champions cup was renamed in memory of the late Paddy Cullen, a lifelong passionate Gael and Cookstown man.

Indeed, the Fr.Rocks grounds on the Convent Road are also named after their dedicated clubman and, after Cookstown lifted the Paddy Cullen Cup for their first time in 2009, they went on to win an Ulster and All-Ireland titles. Eskra, meanwhile, have their own special reason for claiming the glory as they aim to win the Intermediate Championship for the first time in the club’s history - less than a decade after they landed their first ever junior title, when they beat Newtownstewart 0-8 to 0-7 in a closely fought 2003 final.

The following year Eskra got to the intermediate decider, only to fall short against Pomeroy - and it has taken them eight years to get back to the brink of securing senior football participation. This novel pairing features teams at opposite ends of the league table, but that counts for little in championship finals, as Moortown found out back in the 2007 intermediate final when they were beaten by a Killyman team looking destined for division three.

Their sole hope of avoiding the drop was to win and gain promotion to the senior ranks for the first time - and they achieved what most people thought was the ‘impossible’ by toppling the St.Malachys in the showpiece shoot-out.

Thoughts of that St.Marys feat will inspire Eskra and The Emmets will look to that to instill great confidence in their players. One man not shy to playing in huge finals is Cookstown skipper Owen Mulligan and, despite remarks that his team are a ‘YOYO’ Club, he says he will lead his team out with great pride next Sunday.

“When John McKeever asked me to be captain, I accepted it with great delight” says the man who is one of the sport’s most recognisable stars.

“Some people would say to me ‘you hardly want to win another intermediate championship, sure you have done it before and, no doubt if you do win it, you will be straight back down’ - a yoyo club they like to call us.

“But that’s people looking from the outside in. They don’t realise how weak our panel was last year at times, with a few retirements, Injuries and players travelling.

“We were stretched for good parts of 2011 and ended up getting relegated, but John came in at the start of the year and we began a rebuilding process. injuries had cleared up and we were rejuvenated with some very talented young players on the squad.

“We still wouldn’t be dealing with the full pack but, hopefully, it’s not too long until we can say we are.

“Those remarks people make about not wanting to win it again are laughable; like, do you think when Tyrone played Kildare in the Division Two League Final this year, that Mickey sent us out to get beatEN, just because it was Division Two?

“That’s not the way it works and, come Sunday, Cookstown will be tuned in to win a game against a very tough and very fit Eskra side, and I will proudly lead them out onto the pitch” he assured. En route to the decider, as underdogs Eskra impressively dispatched Stewartstown, Urney and Gortin, with Cookstown having wins over Augher, loughmacrory and near neighbours Rock, going into all their games with the favourites tag.

Eskra had a slow start to 2012, losing their first three league games, but then going on an unbeaten run of five, winning three games, drawing two, picking up a creditable draw against the Moy.

Mulligan remembers the opening league fixture between these sides, with a depleted Eskra side holding their own for 45 minutes, before falling to two Cookstown goals, going down 2-8 to 0-5.

“We played them in the first league game at home and, only for two goals in the second half, the game could have gone either way. “Eskra were far from full out that day; they were missing some big players. But all those players will be there on Sunday, fully fit again to, so we know the challenge that lies ahead for us.

“I’ve seen them play a few times this year and I firmly believe that, if they hadn’t had so many injuries earlier in the year, they’d be sniffing in round a play-off spot now - and more than capable of going up.

“They have improved with every game and will prove a tough nut to crack. We know they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so they are definitely not a team you can underestimate.”

Will Eskra defy the Favourite’s tag once again this year, and lift their first ever intermediate title? Or will Cookstown go on and lift, for the second time in three years, the trophy named in honour of their clubman?

Those questions will be answered come Sunday evening, after what should be a very close and entertaining county final.