Club Focus – Clan na Gael

When you talk about clubs with tradition, you don’t have to look much further than the blue and white side of Lurgan.

Only Crossmaglen have earned more Senior Championship titles, as Clan na Gael sit joint second with Armagh Harps, both claiming fourteen crowns.

Clan na Gael were the dominant team during the 60’s and 70’s, earning Senior Championship glory seven times in nine years, between 1968 and 1976.

Thrown into the mix were three in a row Ulster Club victories across 1972-1974, and an All-Ireland Final defeat to UCD after a replay in 1974.

Along with the bulging trophy cabinet at Senior level, the club has also earned seven Minor Championship titles along the way.

Names like Diarmaid Marsden, Barry O’Hagan, Jimmy Smyth, Jim McKerr and Colm McKinstry, roll off the tongue when talking about Armagh legends, all hail from the Clan na Gael club.

Stefan Campbell is one of the new heroes of the Lurgan giants, and is part of the side pushing to getting back to the top tier of Armagh club football.

Finishing in second place in Division 2A last season, Clan na Gael secured promotion back to the Senior Championship, but only if everything went to plan in the Championship.

“We knew nothing was set in stone, if Mullaghbawn didn’t win the Championship, we’d remain in the division, unless we won it ourselves. There were no celebrations; we knew there was a lot of football to be played”.

As it turned out, Grange defeated both Mullaghbawn and Clan na Gael to deny the Clans a chance to gain promotion.

But as Campbell reflects, his side want the Championship glory rather than going up through league positioning.

“History tells you that nothing but a Championship victory will do, in terms of winning the competition”.

“For us, the Grange did us a favour by going on to win the Championship. I feel to get out of the Intermediate, we as a group and a club need to win the Championship, you need that victory, that winning feeling”.

“So the next time we take the field, our goal is always going to be that Intermediate Championship, that’s going to be the preference, more than going up in second place”.

This will be Clan na Gael’s eighth year battling in the Intermediate Championship, and they have yet to reach a final.

“We seem to have issues getting over that quarter final/semi final stage. I do feel if we got to the final, there’s no doubt that we’d put on a show, but it’s just getting over the line, there’s a lot of competitive teams out there”.

In 2013 they gained the “bragging rights” around Lurgan by defeating neighbours Clann Eireann 1-11 to 1-10, before falling at the hands of Mullaghbawn in the Quarter Final.

The following year the Clans would record the same feat in reaching the Quarter Finals.

St Paul’s claimed victory in the opening round of the Championship with an Andrew Murnin “one man show”, meaning Clan na Gael would have to go through the qualifiers.

That they did, and victories over both Wolfe Tones and St Peter’s set up a Quarter Final clash with Forkhill, a team on the rise.

An early goal paved the way for the South Armagh men, with the final score Forkhill 1-12 Clan na Gael 0-9.

“We were a bit complacent; we hadn’t really played Forkhill much before”.

“They took us by surprise, they scored a goal from the throw in and that set the tone. They were very strong and we just weren’t expecting it.”

For the third year in a row, the Clans would see themselves in the latter end of the competition, but once again would withstand a similar fate.

They saw off Shane O’Neill’s and Silverbridge to set up an all-Lurgan clash with rivals Clann Eireann, both sides battling it out for a last four spot.

Clann Eireann warranted the bragging rights this time around, and the 1-14 to 1-10 defeat saw Clan na Gael crash out of the Championship at the Quarter Final stage for the third year in a row, with their neighbours going on to win the competition.

The Clans had gone through three tough years in the Intermediate, and in 2016 suffered their biggest defeat of the lot.

Having saw off Corrinshego with ease in the opening round, “bogey team” Whitecross lay in wait in round two.

A convincing 1-18 to 0-9 win sent the Lurgan men to the qualifiers.

It was there that the Clans found some form, claiming a huge, unexpected win over League Champions Culloville, before defeating top contenders Killeavy in the Quarter Final.

“They were two really big victories for us, that was really enjoyable”.

“Culloville had won the league and won it quite comfortably. That was an unbelievable game and we turned them over quite easily in the end”.

“We were matched up well against them that night and it was a decent performance from us.”

“Fintan Burns was over us at this stage and he was a great coach, he was the mastermind behind that (win over Killeavy).

Killeavy were well fancied that night, it was an unbelievable performance. I think I kicked 1-11 or 1-12 that night myself”.

“Those two results were probably the most memorable Championship time that I’ve had, with two big upsets”.

“For some reason our team just performs better when we’re the underdog”.

As fate would have it, this set up another meeting with Whitecross, this time in the Semi Final.

Although Clan na Gael were able to close the gap, Whitecross were the superior team, and gained entrance to the Championship Final with a 1-10 to 0-10 win.

“We were in it for large parts; we had a goal opportunity with about 15 minutes to go, when the game was in the balance”.

“Our corner back David McKelly came up and hit the post, and Shieldsy (Mark Shields) hit two frees and that was it”.

It was back to the drawing board once again, and if 2016 was a step forward, then 2017 was two steps back, and Clan na Gael looked further away than ever from claiming that much sought after Championship crown.

Two games and two loses against St Peter’s and Grange saw Clan na Gael knocked out of the Championship at the earliest junction.

The reformed Championship group structure has seen a rejuvenated Clans side, earning five victories from their six group games across two seasons.

Wins over Crossmaglen IIs and Ballyhegan, followed by a three point loss to Grange, allowed the Clans to gain excess to a Quarter Final spot in 2018.

It was Wolfe Tones this time that proved a step too far and Clan na Gael would once again have to plan their Intermediate exit strategy in 2019.

Having finally done so during the league, a big Championship run was still needed to guarantee their place in Division 1B for 2020.

 “The plan was always to win the Championship. We got off to a good start in the league and then we hit a patch and dropped a few points and we stumbled to second place”.

The Clans got off to a flying start with wins over Grange, Eire Og and Shane O’Neill’s guiding them to a last eight spot where they would face Crossmaglen IIs.

“The Grange wasn’t really a true result (1-15 to 1-8), they had a lot of men sent off. There was a bit of a scuffle and they lost two or three players”.

“We won our group and went straight to the quarter final and we met Cross IIs, which was a tricky game for us”.

“I was struggling with my quad at the time, I wasn’t supposed to play and closer to the game I got a little nervy and thought I needed to play”.

“I decided just after the warm up that I needed to go in and I stayed pretty close to goal all night”.

Campbell helped his team to a 0-20 to 0-16 victory and in the Semi Final they would face a rematch against their opponents from round one, Grange.

“We were four points up in the middle of the second half and Ronan Austin went off, he was concussed, and we lost a bit of momentum around the middle. We threw it away in injury time”.

“Grange were actually my dark horse for the Championship from the start, with the quality they have up top alone with Ethan (Rafferty), Miceal (McKenna) and Cathal (McKenna), three county panellists”.

“They’re going to cause any team in Intermediate serious issues, then throw in Justy (Kieran) to play off them; they were my pick from the start, aside from ourselves”.

A last minute Miceal McKenna point denied the Clans their promotion, and worse still, stopped them from claiming Championship glory.

There’s no doubt the Clans are on the right track however and their underage success has indicated a club on the rise.

Their under 14 side claimed the Feile crown in 2019 while the under 16 team completed the League and Championship double, as well as reaching the Paul McGirr Ulster Championship Final last season.

So when football reconvenes in 2020, Championship will once again be the target for Clan na Gael.

“Championship first and foremost, that is the preference. If there’s going to be a league this year, there’s no doubt Marsden and Joe Lavery are going to send us out to win every game, but Championship is always going to be priority”.

“We’ll give it a good shot, it’s just trying to put that experience from previous years to good use and one year hopefully we’re ready to make that breakthrough and get to the showpiece”.