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Magherafelt feature: The year that changed a club

Victory over Coleraine was the catalyst for a first title since 1978

County Derry Post senior championship all-star team

Danny Heavron lifts the John McLaughlin Cup. (Pic: Mary K Burke)

Last weekend Magherafelt were supposed to gather for a night of celebration to mark their first senior championship in 41 years. With the country in lock-down, it has been postponed until later in the year. Michael McMullan takes a look back at the season their underage promise matured, helping them to club football's biggest prize.

It was the year that just kept on giving.

When the record books are dusted down in decades to come, 2019 will be the season Magherafelt will never forget.

The ghosts of 1978 were banished and Magherafelt's litany of hard luck stories fuelled another drive that morphed into the greatest chapter in their club's history.

They weren't the fancied horse but that didn't matter. In fact, from the outside, Adrian Cush appeared to thrive on it. The deepest of thinkers had pieced together the blueprint to claw themselves in the direction of the John McLaughlin Cup.

They took an unmerciful hammering at home to Bellaghy in mid-summer before bolting the wheels back on the wagon again. It was time for self-assessment and a win over Ballinderry acted as the catalyst for what was to follow.

“Thanks for all those (wrong) predictions in the paper, it won me a county medal,” uttered one of Magherafelt's squad in my direction.

It came from the vibrating epicentre of a packed Bryson's bar on 'county final Monday'. The words were offered and taken with the same affable jest. The night's post-final festivities were still in overdrive. The emotion of winning something you have dedicated most of your sporting life to, is both raw and magical.

Just over 24 hours earlier, the Rossa fraternity – young and old – were floating around Celtic Park. Punch-drunk on a cocktail of relief and joy. Nobody wanted to go home. It was like the morning after a wedding and everyone wanted to talk to everyone else, enlightened even further with the never-ending flashing of cameras.

John Joe Cleary's final whistle stopped Ciaran McFaul's potential stoppage time equaliser in its tracks, but the best team, invariably, won. By a group of players who demonstrated an underbelly for the battle that was always questioned. The days of rolling over were gone.

When the team bus nosed its way into Rossa Park later that evening and Danny Heavron emerged with the glistening John McLaughlin Cup, Marty Donnelly captured the moment beautifully via the club's live stream. Hoisting the cup into the night sky was Heavron's perfect salute, yards away from the pitches where Rossa's underage conveyor belt honed their heroes.

They were no longer the bridesmaids. This was their day.

From the moment Emmett McGuckin's goal helped prise the John McLaughlin Cup from holders Coleraine, momentum was Magherafelt's best friend.

Twelve months after being slated by a viral social media post of Padraig Cassidy being allowed to keep possession, unchallenged, Magherafelt's deep-lying hurt transpired into a swift counter-attacking game.

A knee injury to Michael McEvoy forced Cush to reinvent the overall shape of the team. Conor Kearns was now their ball-playing wing back and was revelling in his new role.

Jared Monaghan was their designated sweeper, dropping back anytime they lost the ball. McGuckin wore 15 but was the team's third midfielder.

In the first half of last season's opening round game, Niall Holly had plucked four balls from the sky with the gusto that simply inspires. The questions were again being asked.

Magherafelt had succumbed to Coleraine in recent years. There was the Slaughtneil game of 2015 when Shane Heavron's unerring kicking display should've ousted the champions before Paul Bradley's mammoth equaliser. Magherafelt offered only token resistance in the replay. Until they chinned a big gun, they wouldn't be taken seriously.

YOUNG BLOOD

Speaking after the county final success, full-back Darren O'Neill hailed the input gained from the influx of younger players who had been used to success with club, school and county. They were U21 champions the previous season and in his post-final interview, Cush pointed to the regret of not being afforded the chance to defend their title. Their Ulster club preparations, saw Magherafelt pull out of the competition.

Winning is a habit and, just like it did for Lavey in 2018, the Rossa U21 run was an ingredient that would be gladly stirred into the recipe for success. It was one that simmered from the early days of their campaign.

By the 48th minute of their Coleraine game, it was win or bust for Magherafelt. The champions looked comfortable but Magherafelt weren't going away. Emmett McGuckin was now at full-forward and with Niall Holly pulled from the engine-room to police him, it gave Magherafelt a glimmer. And they took full advantage.

Jared Monaghan set off up the flank and by the time the ball was crossed, McGuckin was perfectly positioned. Lurking on the corner of the box, his predatory instincts did the rest – finishing past Ryan McGeough for a score that would change their season and fire a warning shot on behalf of an entire club. They were not to be denied this time.

The emotion of winning something you have dedicated most of your sporting life to, is both raw and magical.

They were forced to dig again after Ciaran McGoldrick levelled matters. This was their moment of truth and the closing stages seemed like a game of its own. And in one moment of instinct, everything changed.

Cormac Murphy's youthful exuberance went for goal when a point was all that was needed. McGeough put Harry Gregg's goalkeeper coaching of angles, in his teenage years, to good use to make the save. In the follow-up, Murphy popped over the bar.

Still Coleraine refused to go away. Conor Kearns was then adjudged to have fouled and Magherafelt's 2015 moment was back on their doorstep. Like Paul Bradley was that evening, Liam McGoldrick stood over a long-range free. The last roll of the dice.

McGoldrick's winner dumped Slaughtneil out 12 months previously but this time his attempt tailed left, almost sucked wide by the animated Adrian Cush on the end-line. Jumping in the air, his arms were spread wide outside his blue 'bainisteoir' bib. A third umpire almost. It was a release of 12 months of frustration.

There were no cups handed out, but the final whistle signalled a pitch invasion. It was a minor one, containing the family members and close friends who had caressed Magherafelt's years of hurt. It was a statement. The players added to it later in the night.  An onlooker in Bryson's later that night circulated a video on social media of the squad celebrating with their tops off.

The rest of Derry sneered at it, but Magherafelt didn't care. It galvanised them further. Their siege mentality had kicked in and they weren't finished yet. Far from it.

Barry Gillis' gloves have proved impossible to fill, but Odhrán Lynch stepped forward from a career on the front line to answer their goalkeeping call.  His rare slip allowed Benny Heron in for goal, to give Ballinascreen a rare glimmer of light in the next round. But it was another young gun, Cormac Murphy, who them ran amok. He finished the game with 1-2 to his name. When 'Screen lost Philip McGlade, Magherafelt went to town and qualified for their first semi-final since 1981.

Waiting for them were Banagher, the other story of the season. Without winning a league game, they clipped Bellaghy in round one. Swatragh didn't heed the warning shot of the Moore brothers' blistering pace and Banagher once again concocted another upset. Paddy McLarnon and Shane Heavron popped over early points for a rampant Magherafelt side. Conor McCluskey had a goal chance denied by Daryl McDermott, who narrowly edged Lynch to the goalkeeper of the championship title.

But it took one moment of instinct from Danny Heavron to swing the game. His pass took out the napping Banagher defence and Conor Kearns finished to the net at the near post.

Niall Moore replied with a Banagher goal, but it was Magherafelt who kept turning up the heat. They flummoxed Banagher's kick-out strategy, but up front they began to misfire. Poor decision making saw the Rossa keep a re-energised Banagher in the game. Mark Lynch, Tiarnán Moore and Conor Feeney all added points, with Magherafelt hanging on by a thread to book their final berth.

The pitch invasion was greater this time. Nothing was won, but goalscorer Kearns felt it was a game his side would have previously lost. The energy was snowballing.

“Look around you,” he said, in a shower of back-slaps and handshakes. “This is what it means to the people of Magherafelt.”

THE FINAL STEP

The next day, Glen's endless running cut Slaughtneil wide open. Every time they attacked, they looked like scoring a goal. Goalkeeper Seán Ó Caiside, Brendan Rogers and substitute Patsy Bradley kept Slaughtneil treading water. Meehaul McGrath and 'Sammy' Bradley had chances to win the game at the death, but Glen prevailed.

The final, with the help of the intermediate pairing of Claudy and Foreglen, would bring 9,511 patrons to Celtic Park for a novel county final.

The hype was cranked up to unprecedented levels. Two teams, full of underage promise, were perched at the final fork in the road to glory.

Glen were odds on favourites. It wasn't as much their win over Slaughtneil, but the manner in which they dismantled them.

In the final, the narrative of Ciaran McFaul's 'point' coming seconds after the final whistle will always dominate the analysis. But strip that away and it was a convincing Magherafelt win. For over 40 minutes, it was total Magherafelt dominance.

Adrian Cush won the sideline battle. He targeted Glen's short and fluid kick-out routine, to which they had no answer. Emmett McGuckin stood up and was counted at midfield, kicking three points. A huge return.

Ethan Doherty was allowed to be the free man. On the one occasion he got through, Odhrán Lynch – who kicked and handled with almost perfection - was out on him like a flash. Gillis' weeks of coaching since the semi-final had paid off and Lynch made a vital save.

In a season of defining moments and with Glen's eye for goal, this was another season changing sequence of events.

As it turned out, it was a red letter day and Magherafelt ended 41 years of hurt to stand at the top of Derry football.

Their adventure into Ulster was short-lived. Jerome Johnston's goal was enough for Kilcoo to make their first step towards Croke Park. Emmett McGuckin's display at full-forward will have given Cush, Paul Quinn and James Slater something to think about.

The team bus nosed its way into Rossa Park later that evening and Danny Heavron emerged with the glistening John McLaughlin Cup.

There is more. Michael McEvoy is on his way back from injury. Peter Quinn has returned from Dublin and Ryan Ferris' transfer from Ballymaguigan brings further options to a bulging squad.

Below senior level, Magherafelt almost completed the clean sweep. The reserves won the championship. So too did the U13, U14 and U16s, while the minors were close to ousting eventual Ulster champions.

When the coronavirus pandemic eventually subsides, Magherafelt will plan to gather for their night of champions. It will be a night like no other. It will be a celebration of all they stand for.

The array of cups will be a badge of honour to Rossa Gaels and the envy of others. At the centre, will be the John McLaughlin Cup. And rightly so. Their senior team's 2019 statement has set a path for everyone to follow from a year that changed the club.

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