Club Focus – Forkhill

The last seven seasons have been a rollercoaster ride for Forkhill followers.

From the highs of a historic rise to the first division, to free-falling back to the basement of Armagh club football.  

Promotion and relegation go hand in hand, when telling the Forkhill story.

Marcus McKeown has been part of the journey; the Forkhill man still hoping to help his team prove their worth, and rid “the Athletic Grounds voodoo” should football return in 2020.

 “We don’t want to be playing Junior football, no disrespect to it, it’s a hard standard of football, we just think we’re capable of competing in the Intermediate.”

Back in 2013 the Club Championship was a much different scene. League standings didn’t determine Championship status, much to the detriment of Forkhill.

They claimed Division Three glory before overcoming Newtown and Cullyhanna II’s to reach the Junior Championship Semi Final.

Annaghmore had just gained promotion to the Senior ranks, and the gap was telling in their last four clash.

Forkhill lost out 2-15 to 0-12, although they held a slender one point advantage at the half way stage.

“Because we were underdogs and leading at half time, it took us a bit by surprise. Their experience of playing at a higher level shone out in the end”.

“That’s one we should have got over the line, especially because we were leading at half time. I think the signs were there, especially in the first half, that we had the potential to be very good.”

2014 would be another step up, and Forkhill were once again up for the challenge.

Back to back promotions saw them leap to the first Division, and set up a charge at the Intermediate Championship.

Wins over Eire Og and Silverbridge led to an eye-catching victory over Clan na Gael in the Quarter Finals, on a day where “the boys that would become our county players, really started to show that they were a level above the rest of the club players.”

St Paul’s followed, and like the year before, Forkhill led at the break, with six points the margin this time around.

But a poor second half performance meant they didn’t reach that much sought after Championship decider, St Paul’s earning that final spot with a 1-11 to 0-10 win.

Now a Senior Club, Forkhill got off to the best start to life in the top Division, defeating Sarsfields 1-10 to 1-9 in the opening round of the league. A team they would get used to over the coming seasons.

Maghery proved too strong in the first round of the 2015 Senior Championship, as did Sarsfields, who were victorious 6-19 to 2-14 after extra time.

“We were leading by a point with a minute to go and had them in their own half, and conceded a late free. They just kicked on in extra time. That was a tough one to take. ”

“We obviously knew we weren’t going to win a Senior Championship, but our goal was to win at least one Championship game.”

Sarsfields were once again the opponents, as the sides clashed in round one of the 2016 Championship. Forkhill just couldn’t get over the line, losing 3-11 to 1-16.

The backdoor allowed Forkhill to remain in the competition and gave them an opportunity of a lifetime. The team produced a display to remember.

Forkhill claimed a memorable 4-8 to 0-9 victory over Granemore, to secure that elusive Senior Championship win.

“I remember that being an unbelievable night, the atmosphere was class. We celebrated like we had won a Championship; it obviously meant a lot to the club”.

“Granemore was a huge scalp for us. For a small club, playing Senior Championship and being competitive, it was nearly too good to be true.”

That awesome high soon became a shattering low. Wolfe Tones were five points the better team in the next round, a second half goal the telling difference between the sides.

Once again Forkhill had held the upper hand, leading 6-4 at half time, but failed to build on the momentum and suffered a devastating 1-9 to 0-7 defeat.

For the third time in four years, Forkhill had led at the break, before being knocked out of the Championship.

“Barry Shannon says that before every Championship, don’t care about the score at half time. Just play at 100 mile-an-hour, because we can’t seem to hold a lead. There’s no point thinking we’re home and hosed because we never are.”

While they secured a historic Championship win, their 2016 league performances resulted in relegation to the Intermediate division.

Again they were good enough to reach the semi final. Tullysaran, Carrickcruppen and Middletown (after a replay) were all conquered before Silverbridge halted their journey in the last four.

“Up to half time it was a fairly tight game. They did their usual man-marking jobs to try and nullify Stephen Sheridan, Jemar Hall and Patrick Burns and I suppose the rest of us didn’t really stand up”.

“At that stage we were nearly too reliant on those guys. I think by the end we had gone down to 14 men and they just were just chipping scores to kill us off.”

Relegation to Division 2B meant Forkhill remained in the Intermediate Championship for 2018, and a flying start saw them top their Championship group, gaining entrance to the Quarter Finals.

“For us to top the group, I think we’d finished second bottom in the league, we did quite well to get that far.”

Mullaghbawn proved a step too far however, and it was back to the Junior Championship in 2019, when they would again reach the last four.

They successfully claimed the Junior B title, heading to the Championship full of hope. A win over Dorsey followed by a three point loss to Collegeland meant Forkhill found themselves in the play offs.

An easy win over O’Hanlon’s perhaps wasn’t the best preparation for their Quarter Final clash with Junior A Champions Clonmore, but Forkhill produced a performance that blew the favourites away.

After 60 minutes of action, Forkhill had secured a shocking 3-12 to 0-6 win. “We’ve played Clonmore a lot over the last three years or so and we knew they were a similar team to us.”

“Management set us up really well and the game plan was just hard work, I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in a game. That was a game that we really tuned in and delved into what we wanted to achieve.”

Forkhill fell once more in the Athletic Grounds on Championship Semi Final day, with Derrynoose winning 3-15 to 2-10.

“Fair play to Derrynoose, they were brilliant that day. At the end of the day they wanted it more than us.”

For now, Forkhill, like the rest of the country, can only hope that they are back playing in 2020. And like many other teams, capturing the dream will once again take priority.  

“We really want to get to a Championship final, before our careers are over, not that we think we deserve it, but for all the effort that we’ve put in through the years.”

“We really want that day where the whole community and club are celebrating. Win, lose or draw, we just want to get to a Championship Final, we’ve been so close so many times”.

County stars Paddy Burns, Stephen Sheridan and Jemar Hall will be key to Forkhill’s progress, “When those guys come back into training, the intensity and attention to detail lifts everybody’s game.”

“Last year, coming off after playing Junior league games, Jemar was walking in front of me into the club house and there was a group of young fellas waiting on Jemar to come and sign their jerseys.”

“I think that’s unbelievable as a motivation to the younger people within the club.”

Injuries, emigration and pure back luck are just some of the ingredients that have pushed Forkhill back down the divisions. “We’re always struggling with injuries; it’s a recurring theme every year”.

“We’re a small club. We’ve had numerous people emigrate and others who have stepped away from football for other commitments.”

“We seem to have a lot of bad luck on the injury front, but we always get 15 boys that are mad keen to get the jersey on”.

Through the heartache of successive relegations, things remain positive in the South Armagh club, “We had Ollie Flynn took over us, just as we’d gone down to the Intermediate”.

“Credit to him, he has stuck with us for two or three years, which were two or three years of relegation and that was no indication of him as a manager”.

“We just had rotten luck, bad timing but he always kept the positively up. People like that that took us at our darkest moments; we actually owe a lot to. It hasn’t all been doom and gloom.”