What ifs and maybes have defined Belleek in recent years as they continue their quest to seize the Sean Quinn Cup.
2020 was as close as they have come in a long time, and it was as close as a team could get without securing the title.
Sean McCreesh has been the vocal point of the attack and a real leader in the side over the years and he knows how near, yet so far, Belleek came last season.
“Last year was a great year for us. The group of players we have at the minute, they were all coming together”.
“We were still a very young side, but the boys are there now three or four years playing senior football and we just felt, the way everything happened, we felt great going into that championship campaign”.
Belleek have claimed many handsome victories over the past number of seasons and have reached the quarter final stages every year for the past five seasons.
Back in 2015, they were huge winners over Dromintee, 4-11 to 0-5, before losing out to a strong Tullysaran side by just one point.
Thankfully, the backdoor was in place and as fate would have it, Tullysaran were once again the opposition after a six-point win over O’Hanlon’s.
“They were a very good side that year, Tullysaran. I think we actually beat them twice in the league, or maybe once, but in the Championship, they went well and pushed on from that”.
The first meeting suggested a narrow gap between the sides, but Tullysaran were rampant and saw out a 4-10 to 0-6 victory in the quarter final.
“I don’t think it would have made a massive difference to the result, but we were missing probably three of four of our senior players. Whenever a team are missing three of four regulars, the mindset can possibly change”.
“That quarter final, they just came out and blew us out of the water. They were physically stronger than us and they were so well organised. It was probably the first time in a long time I’d come up against a team that organised”.
The Laurence O’Toole side would go one step further in 2016, reaching the semi-final despite losing the first round to Lissummon.
They bounced back with wins over Crossmaglen IIs and a one-point victory over Collegeland to reach the last four.
Cullyhanna proved too strong and gained entry to the showpiece, a surprise result for the Belleek folk, “We hockeyed them twice in the league that year”.
“We felt that after we got over the Collegeland game, we were maybe a bit young and boys were complacent on it, but we went into that game confident that we’d a good chance to get to the Junior Final”.
“It’s something with Cullyhanna, if you don’t match them for intensity then you’re going to struggle against them”.
St Patrick’s would prove to be a familiar opponent, with three championship meetings coming up in 2017.
Collegeland fell at the first hurdle with Belleek claiming a six-point win before defeating Cullyhanna 0-12 to 1-7 to confirm their spot in the quarter finals.
St Pat’s regrouped in the backdoor and were drawn against Belleek in the last eight, where the teams couldn’t be separated.
Cullyhanna gained the upper hand in the replay in a game that McCreesh will always remember, for all the wrong reasons.
“We got a penalty with the last kick of the game and unfortunately, I missed it, so that was a hard one to swallow. I still get reminded of it now every time we have a penalty comp at training!”
“Those games with Cullyhanna, they were a dogged team. Going into that last game we were very confident; they got a good start on us. We got back at them but then they got back in front again and then we got the last chance, but it just didn’t work out for us that night”.
More heartbreak followed in 2018, in the quarter finals once again after securing easy wins over Clady and Newtown.
A controversial Derrynoose goal knocked Belleek out of the championship, “It’s probably who you talk to”.
“I was up in full forward that night so I couldn’t really see it, but going by what we were told that night, supposedly the Derrynoose player had stood over the line (when taking a sideline), launched it into the full forward line and they scored the goal.”
While the linesman did make the referee aware, he allowed the goal to stand, and it was another hard luck story for the South Armagh club.
“The game had turned a wee bit. Derrynoose got a good start but we were coming back into it and building momentum and we felt we were going to finish the game strong”.
“I think if we had of got over Derrynoose that year, we could have went on and done something”.
A strong league campaign in 2019 offered renewed hope, as Belleek finished second, although they would have to win the Championship, or hope Clonmore did, to guarantee promotion.
“That was a great league campaign in terms of the lads we had coming through getting experience, we beat a lot of good teams that year in the league. We were very well drilled, the management team had us well organised and well set up”.
They got off to a flyer in the championship, beating Newtown and St Pat’s before a draw with Killeavy saw them finish second in the group, meaning they’d have to travel the play-off route.
While they overcame Lissummon with ease, the extra game went against them. “The Killeavy game sort of took the wind out of our sails.”
“That put us into a situation where we were into the backdoor. We picked up silly knocks and we just didn’t get that extra weeks rest, maybe the weeks rest would have done us better going into the quarter final”.
There was no controversy this time around as Derrynoose proved the better team on the night to make their way to the semi-finals.
“We had beaten Derrynoose twice in the league that year. We performed really well in the league and we just didn’t expect what Derrynoose had for us that day. I think that was the day that they had Davey McCreesh and Conor McNally inside and they just tore us apart”.
The feeling that this Belleek side were good enough to challenge proved true in 2020 as they finally reached the Junior decider.
Massive wins over Clady, Dorsey and Newtown saw McCreesh and his men reach the final, with Forkhill standing between them and history.
A replay was required, then extra time, and eventually it was Forkhill who were crowned champions, but Belleek didn’t go down without a fight.
They showed that battling spirit the first day out, coming back from the dead to steal a draw and set up another day out.
“The big one (feeling at full time) was obviously relief because we got another go at them. Walking off the field, I can remember looking over at Forkhill and they just looked dejected”.
The situation flipped six days later and this time it was Forkhill, and Jemar Hall, who grabbed a late score to tie the game.
“I haven’t really watched the game back, but I felt Fearghus (Quinn) done a massive job on him (Hall) that night, I don’t think he was as productive as he was in the first game”.
“At the same time, you just can’t give someone like Jemar that much space and he got them back level and they kicked on in extra time”.
Two goals in extra time proved too much to come back from and Belleek walked off the field having missed a huge chance.
McCreesh is confident however that the young side will be back in 2021, whenever football does eventually return.
“It’s been mentioned a few times around the club, we’re still a young side. The age profile that started that game (the final) is crazy, I was the oldest player at 31, the other forwards are all 21, 22”.
“The Junior Championship to Belleek is something that we’ve only ever won. It’s something that we’d love to win again. Every player would tell you that if they won a championship with their club, it’s probably the best thing that would ever happen to them”.
“It’s the main goal in the club at the minute, it’s just up to us as a group of players to knuckle down to get us ready. I’ve no doubt our management will have everything in place for us”.