It is a very good side that completes a competition without a defeat.
So on those grounds the final year students of St Patrick’s College in Maghera, who are aiming for their seventh year unbeaten in knockout football, must be one of the most exceptional to come through the famous sporting establishment.
Already MacRory Cup champions after their famous victory over St Paul’s High School, Bessbrook at Armagh, Sean Marty Lockhart and Martin McConnell’s charges now have the opportunity to cap a phenomenal schools career by taking the Hogan Cup when they take on St Patrick’s Classical School, Navan at Croke Park on Saturday.
“It is a fantastic achievement to get to the Hogan Cup final, but then again, this is a special group of players,” co-manager Sean Marty Lockhart told the MAIL.
“They haven’t been beaten in seven years in a Championship match. They’ve lost league games of course, but they haven’t been beaten in a Championship match since coming to school.
“Since the start of the year this team has been tagged with being the favourites within Ulster. To be honest a favourites tag at MacRory Cup level means absolutely nothing. That is because every team that we come up against have set up to defend against us - blanket defence, getting men behind the ball, sweeper systems – and they increase their game by ten or fifteen per cent. So every game in the Championship this year has been a dogged, dogged war of attrition,” said Lockhart, who captained the St Pat’s Maghera side that won the 1995 MacRory Cup. Unfortunately he could not go on to compete in the Hogan Cup for the school, as he was nine days over the age limit.
“We haven’t had a chance to express ourselves in a way that we would like. People say that you have to learn how to win dirty and that is exactly what we have learned to do this year.
“In Ulster, everyone knows one another. There is statistical analysis, player analysis and everyone knows everything about the other teams. On an All-Ireland basis you are able to break that mould and get the space to express yourself a bit more.
“Our guys have handled that pressure incredibly well and all that Martin (McConnell) and I have done this year is organise them and implement a work ethic within the team.”
Lockhart described how the management have cultivated decision making on the field, urging the players to take charge and make choices on the field rather than looking for direction from the sidelines.
“I think the key word is adaptability. When our guys see a problem on the pitch they take the responsibility to fix it. It takes too much time for Martin or myself to identify the problem, process what to do, get the message on the pitch, and for them to then fix it. We trust our players to make the right calls. In our team it is improvisation from the players and the problem is fixed. We’ve empowered them with that responsibility.”
In the build-up to the big match, the team took a trip down to Croke Park to soak up the atmosphere as well as to come to terms with playing at the home of the GAA.
“It was a real worthwhile day. We had Kieran McGeeney from Kildare over to talk to the boys. He talked about core values and about how a team that displays these has the potential to be far more successful than an outfit made up of prima donnas.
“Every game we’ve played to date has seen us put under pressure at one point or another. Our lads have shown tremendous character to come through those hard times every single time. Sometimes this year we have been playing far from well but we have still been able to grind out results.
“It is what you do as a team in those difficult periods of a game that really shows you how good a team is. We are very good at soaking up pressure and then breaking on the counter-attack.”
Mr Lockhart talked with admiration about Maghera’s opposition, St Patrick’s Classical School from Navan, and their manager Colm O’Rourke.
“Navan and their manager have won three Hogan Cups in the last ten years or so – a phenomenal record. I played under Colm O’Rourke for Ireland in ‘98 and ’99 against Australia and he is an outstanding manager. A true Gael and very, very shrewd. He knows how to organise a team and how to motivate them and get the very best out of them.
“We’d be rookies by comparison. He is going for his fourth Hogan since 2000 while we are looking for our fifth since 1970 – that should put it very much in perspective.
“They were favourites to win in Leinster and, like ourselves, they are unbeaten despite coming through some really tough games including beating Edenderry, who are the reigning Hogan champions, in the Leinster final.
“Not only do they have a brilliant team but they also have a brilliant squad with guys ready to come off the bench that can change a game. They play a good style of football and have got Meath minors who made it to the All-Ireland final last year. They have good footballers all over the park who throw the ball about very well; a strong, tenacious defence and an athletic midfield with an array of forwards up front.
“They will ask serious questions of our boys but we have the players to compete with them. I hope the occasion doesn’t get to our fellas. If we go out and play the sort of football that we can we will be in with a great chance of bringing the Hogan Cup home.”