The league champions are one game away from entering the semi final stages of the championship with St Patrick’s Cullyhanna standing in their way in a winner takes all contest this evening. Both these sides have already lost one game in the championship and the season will be over for tonight’s losers.
Ciaran McKeever will walk out in the Cullyhanna jersey for what could be his last appearance in the club colours and many of his team mates are in a similar situation. “At the start of the year you had the likes of myself, Malachy Mackin, Stephen Reel, all the older brigade probably had second thoughts on whether we were going to go back or not and then one of our players and friends Stephen Reel took over and he sat down with us and spoke to us all and he said he’d give us an extended break until the second half of the league”.
“He said sit tight and don’t make any rash decisions so we all decided we’d go back for the second half of the league knowing that our main focus and Stephen’s main focus was not putting much emphasis on the league. It was just about trying to get everyone on board and keeping everybody fresh for championship”.
McKeever enjoyed the extended break and has hit the ground running during the championship and retirement isn’t the Mayobridge coaches main concern at the moment, “Every year is the last push when you become 33, 34, 35, it’s a high possibility that this could be the last stint for a lot of boys in the Cullyhanna changing rooms”.
“We’ll take it one game at a time and take every year as it comes and there’ll be no rash decisions made regardless. Probably over the past number of weeks is the first time that we really got everybody on the pitch together and we’re just tipping away nicely and we’re now in the quarter final of the championship. All the older players are fresh and we’re enjoying being back now the last 8 or 10 weeks”.
While McKeever is a member of the ‘older brigade’ Cullyhanna boast some of the best young footballers in the county, although they’ll be without Ross McQuillan who has struck a deal with Essendon in Australia and will now play ball in the AFL next season. McKeever insists the main challenge for the St Pat’s boss is blending the youth and experience together, which he has done successfully so far in the season.
“Stephen tries to get the balance right with the experienced boys on the pitch and then the younger boys and our role is to mentor them on the pitch as much as well can within real game time. So it’s just about getting that balance right and having that impact then coming off the bench for the last 20, 25 minutes and that’s what Stephen is picking our team on and hopefully it works out for us now in the latter stages of the championship”.
Cullyhanna have been dealt the short straw for the second week running with a Monday night fixture following their win over Dromintee seven days ago, “It’s definitely tough, regardless of whether you play on a Friday night or a Monday night, I know a lot of the Cullyhanna boys are involved in the construction trade and are back working in Dublin”.
“So they’re away on a Friday morning or a Monday morning at five o’clock or half five and then rushing back down the road that evening so they won’t get caught in traffic in Dublin to go and play a match which is tough but it is what it is and the boys will try to manage that time the best they can and leave them and us in a good position to try and get a win”.
So tonight’s game is a tough one to call but St Patrick’s will certainly head into the contest as underdogs and McKeever can’t argue with the bookies odds, “In a way coming in through the play offs I think will suit us and it will suit this team a lot better than qualifying directly for the quarter finals through the group stages”.
“As I said a lot of us boys didn’t come back to about 10 weeks ago and we’re blended in nicely with 20 minutes to go in a few league matches and now we’ve started the last two championship matches full out and that extra match (against Dromintee) should put us in good stead. Obviously Maghery’s going to be firm favourites, they won the Armagh league with three of four games to spare and I believe they have the best panel in Armagh and it’s up to us to come up with a plan and we’ll be going in quietly confident of overturning them”.