There is an expectation throughout the county that Clann Eireann will eventually climb the steps of the Athletic Grounds as Senior Champions.
It’s a familiar walk for a lot of the Lurgan lads, having experienced plenty of underage success, but as they have found out in recent years, it’s not easy to turn potential into reality.
Ryan Owens was part of those youthful outfits that dominated the underage scene and is now one of the leaders within a senior team that is expected to challenge.
“It is pressure, but it’s pressure that we put on ourselves anyway. We’ve won championships from under 12 right up to under 21, two under 21’s in a row. We’d be putting massive pressure on ourselves”.
“We don’t feel it and we don’t really listen to anyone outside; it wouldn’t bog us down too much. It’s our own pressure that we feel the most”.
Intermediate Champions in 2015 and with a raft of youthful talent coming through, Clann Eireann looked set to contest the Gerry Fagan cup instantly.
They’re first few senior years proved successful, beating Madden in 2016 before earning two massive, and somewhat unexpected victories, over Ballymacnab.
“We’d played Madden in the Intermediate and we’d sort of dabbled with them, but we’d never really played Ballymacnab. It was a big scalp in the championship (4-11 to 0-13).
Clann Eireann didn’t have long to celebrate the victory and were drawn against the Round Towers in the quarter final. The Lurgan side emerged victorious once more, 0-11 to 0-10.
“It was massive, it probably gave a lot of us the confidence to go on and have decent senior careers and start for our senior team”.
“I remember the first day, Gavy (McParland) only came off the bench. So, we were thinking the second day was going to be a whole lot different, he’s going to be playing the full game”.
“I actually picked him up for the full game and I remember thinking ‘if we can mix it with these boys and beat them with their full team, we’re knocking on the door”.
That door was firmly shut in the semi-final as Maghery proved a step too far, winning convincingly 2-17 to 1-9.
“The scoreline actually flattered us, they should have scored double what they scored. They were further down the line than us, that team had been on the road for a while and we maybe had four or five teenagers playing that day.”
It was back to the drawing board in 2017. Wins over Pearse Ogs and Dromintee set up a quarter final clash with their underage adversaries Crossmaglen.
The Rangers had lost their grip on the Armagh championship in 2016 and found themselves in the back door the following year, meaning Clann Eireann faced a “wounded animal”.
Cross showed no mercy and delivered a 1-23 to 0-10 hammering. “We always felt like they were raising their game against us, they were getting real satisfaction out of putting a number on us, and they did”.
“We would have played down through the years in underage, we would have had some good battles. It would be the same with us, if we were tanking them, we’d want to be tanking them by more. It’s one of those things, we’ve been massive rivals down through the years”.
Clann Eireann won five of their seven championship games between 2016 and 2017. In the years after, the Lurgan side have only won two, losing five and drawing one.
An opening day win over Madden got Clann Eireann off to a good start in 2018 but still they crashed out, finishing bottom of group two.
“We beat Madden the first day out, and a wee bit of comfort set in. Silverbridge came down to our pitch and gave us an eight-point trimming and then we played Cross up in Cross. They tanked us”.
“We found out the news that Madden had actually beat Silverbridge and because of the way it worked on point difference, Madden ended up going through”.
2019 proved even worse. Owens and a few of his teammates spent some of the summer in the states, but returned for the championship.
“I remember me and Turbo coming back into training and we were off the pace. Our managers were asking how we were feeling, and we were basically just feeding lies because you didn’t want to worry them or panic them. We weren’t in good shape whatsoever”.
Defeats to Crossmaglen (3-18 to 0-9) and Ballymacnab (5-20 to 0-10) set up a winner-takes-all battle with Sarsfields in the final group game.
The sides finished level but due to scoring difference, Sarsfields moved forward in the competition while Clann Eireann finished bottom of the group for the second year running.
“They (Sarsfields) were very competitive with Cross and Ballymacnab. The two trimmings we got from Cross and the Nab hurt us but that Sarsfields game, I’d went off after ten minutes, Turbo wasn’t anywhere near what he was, we’d two players sent off and we still managed to get a draw. All things considered it was actually a good result”.
2020 proved a step in the right direction as Clann Eireann looked to get back on track and more importantly, back to winning ways in the championship.
“Four years in a row, there was at least one game in the championship where we were on the end of a bad defeat. We just said, ‘boys something needs to stop here’. If you’re going to make moves towards a championship, not even win one, we’re going to have to become far more competitive”.
“We were good enough in those years, but the mindset had to change and to be fair when Tommy Coleman and the boys came in, they definitely helped with that big time”.
A tight win over Granemore showed Clann Eireann’s fighting spirit and put them through to the quarter finals, where Maghery lay in wait.
“They’d (Granemore) scored their goal, and it came from a mess at the back. We hadn’t given them a sniff all game and then this blip happens and you’re thinking ‘we’re going to get beat by a point here after playing all the football’.
“It’s the best buzz. You can win a game by 20 points, 15 points, but those slim victories when you go through the wars, all the boys are dogging it out and you win by a point, they’re definitely the sweetest championship wins”.
While they took the eventual champions Maghery to extra time, in a game they definitely could have won, Owens insists his side didn’t read too much into the result.
“We were under no illusions; we knew they were missing players. Stefy Cusack is a massive miss for them, Ben Crealey came back into the fold, (Ronan) Lappin started in the championship final. These were all boys that made massive differences in the final”.
“People would be saying we could have won a championship, but we’d still another two games to go and it was, don’t get me wrong, a very strong Maghery side and yes, we should have beaten them, but a weakened one none the less”.
“We know we have the players there to go and win one definitely, but our levels do have to rise and we just need that wee bit more experience in those tighter situations”.
No one knows what 2021 holds. The 2020 season remains incomplete and Clann Eireann are one of five teams fighting it out for promotion from Division 1B.
“From a purely selfish point of view, you want to play as much football as possible and that would mean finishing out the 2020 season. We all want to play 1A and I feel like it’s the only way to make you competitive enough to win a championship”.
“We want to finish that out but it’s at the detriment to the safety of the community at the minute. I can see it getting scrapped to be honest and then starting 2021 fresh”.
When football does eventually return, promotion will once again be on the top of Clann Eireann’s to-do list.
“1A football needs to be secured, whether it be through winning the league, ideally you want to go up as champions, or at the very least go up in that second position”.
“In terms of championship, you want to be dining out on the biggest day, so you want to be talking championship final definitely”.