One of the fairytale stories of Armagh club football over the last number of years, has been the rise of the Annaghmore football team.
With the leagues restructured in 2014, the Pearse’s jumped from the Junior Championship to Senior Championship, avoiding the Intermediate completely.
They were good value for their promotion too, finishing second in Division Two in 2013, before going on to lift the Junior Championship trophy.
A mainstay of their side has been their goalkeeper Matthew McNeice, who reflects on his sides leap into the Senior Championship.
“Traditionally, we would have been a Junior team. To be competing at Senior level, and to have competed for so long, it’s a great sense of pride for everyone involved”.
2013 was a huge year in the clubs history. After securing promotion, Annaghmore claimed wins over Pearse Ogs II, Lissummon, Ballyhegan and Forkhill to reach the Junior Championship Final for the second year running.
Leading from start to finish, Annaghmore gained a 0-12 to 1-5 win and were crowned Junior Champions.
“We had two men sent off in that game, and obviously we would have been the favourites going into it. It was good to pull that one out of the bag in the local derby”.
“Even going back to the year before, we got to the final and Blackwatertown beat us by three points. They went on to win the Ulster that year”.
“We knew that was going to be our last chance at it, with the changes in the Championship structures that were coming up”.
“It was a massive relief to get that one done and dusted especially after losing the year before. We knew the talent that we had, so we wanted to capitalise”.
Division One beckoned in 2014 and it didn’t take McNeice and his teammates long to witness the step up in class.
“We played Shane O’Neill’s and Whitecross in the first two games and we got the result in both”.
“I remember thinking that we really stepped up in terms of the intensity and the quality of the football”.
“We played Cullyhanna at home, and that was as strong a traditional team that we had played at that point”.
“You could really notice the difference in terms of physicality and the speed that the game was played at”.
Staying up was the main objective and Annaghmore completed their target in dramatic fashion,
“We beat Armagh Harps in Annaghmore to stay up and the celebrations after that would have maybe matched the Championship win the year before, if not exceeded them”.
The good days kept coming. Annaghmore saw off Shane O’Neill’s with ease in the opening round of the Senior Championship to set up a clash with St Patrick’s Cullyhanna.
The loss of John McCormack and Ciaran MacIomhair saw Annaghmore lose out 1-12 to 0-7 and as fate would have it, Shane O’Neill’s lay waiting in the qualifiers.
“We were maybe content with the performances in the league and the initial Championship win. I don’t know if we took the eye off the ball, or maybe it was the outcome of a long season for us”.
Shane O’Neill’s gained revenge, earning a one point victory to end Annaghmore’s season on a defeat, although it was still a year to remember.
2015 followed a similar pattern. Target one of remaining in Division One was complete and an opening round Championship win over Tir na nOg saw Annaghmore meet Ballymacnab in round two.
The Underdogs edged through by the minimum of margins, recording a famous 1-12 to 0-14 win over the Nab, a night that will live long in the memory.
“That’s one that’s still brought up, and that day we played a really good brand of football. We raced out to a big lead and then Ballymacnab came back”.
“We were able to see it out. Towards the end of that match we held on to the ball for a couple of minutes and it was as good as we have ever closed out a game”.
“The composure we showed to do that was testament to the coaches we had with us around that time”.
“I think that was the third or fourth year we had Dessie McCormack, Gavin McGilly and Paul McCullagh”.
“That was an accumulation of three or four years hard work, and we were starting to see the results of that”.
Incredibly, that would be Annaghmore’s last win in the Senior Championship.
That victory brought the men in red and white to the Quarter Finals, and like the year before, the backdoor system was their undoing.
They were once again paired with the team they had already beaten, and Ballymacnab were ready for vengeance.
“That’s one that really bugs us because there’s that sense that we missed an opportunity to compete in the Semi Finals of the Senior Championship, which for us would have been unheard of”.
“After that game everything was a bit down because we really felt that we had missed that chance”.
“We’d the perfect storm in that, in around 2014, ’15, we had a couple of different groups”.
“We’d seven or eight boys more established, seven or eight mid-20’s and then seven or eight just coming into the panel. I don’t know if we made enough of that at the time”.
2016 was a disappointing year. The league goal had once again been reached, but the Championship door was firmly slammed in Annaghmore’s faces.
Maghery recorded a 1-15 to 0-9 win before Dromintee ended the Pearse’s year with a 0-15 to 0-11 victory.
“It’s hard to know where the heads were, whether we had the belief that we could challenge against the likes of Maghery”.
“Our focus would have been on the league. Number one priority was to stay up and depending on how results went, could we challenge and push out of the B section of the Senior League”.
“The Championship would have been looked on in hope rather than expectation”.
“We always felt that we could put it up to a team, and if everything went right on our day, there would be nothing stopping us getting a result, but it wasn’t the be all and end all for us”.
More Championship heartache followed the next year. Armagh Harps were too strong in round one, while Annaghmore twice threw away three point leads to draw with Sarsfields.
“We were winning by three points at the end of normal time and extra time, and on both occasions conceded goals with near enough the last kick of the game. Sarsfields hung in and punished us for sloppiness”.
Annaghmore failed to rise to the challenge in the replay and were defeated 0-12 to 1-14, “they got the goal mid-way through the second half”.
“That opened up a three or four point gap, and we just couldn’t get back into it then after that”.
Annaghmore have struggled with the introduction of the group format to the Championship, with their record across two years reading: Played 6, Lost 5, Drew 1, Won 0.
“To somebody looking from the outside, that’s the perception (poor championship runs), but internally we wouldn’t have been disappointed with how we got on”.
“In the last couple years we’ve been working with a significantly reduced panel than we would have had in round 2014, 2015″.
Although the Championship hasn’t gone to plan for Annaghmore, they have achieved their initial target of remaining in the Division One, leaving it late in 2019 to secure their status.
They faced a tie against promotion hunters Granemore in the last game of the league, knowing a loss would see them relegated.
“We knew going into that game, just on how the head to head worked, that the draw or win was needed”.
“The main objective of the year was achieved in staying up”.
Looking to the future, McNeice hopes his side can remain and compete in the Senior Championship, holding onto their Division 1B status remains the priority.
“Our aim is to stay up and to do as well as we can and if we got the right run results, to try and push into 1A”.
“We still feel that on our day, we are capable of competing with any of the teams in Armagh”.
“What would be deemed successful for us is probably staying up, but nobody just wants to aim to stay up every year”.
“You’re always aiming to win a league, so if we got the right run of results, that definitely what the aim would be”.
One thing’s for sure, Annaghmore have brought plenty of joy to their supporters over the last few years and hope to continue to do so!