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Craigbane duo look back on the club's journey to a seventh heaven

Conrad McGuigan and Fergal Moore are among the most decorated players of the club's championship record

Craigbane duo look back on the club's journey to a seventh heaven

Craigbane lead Derry's intermediate football roll of honour. Of their seven titles, Fergal Moore was involved in five, while Conrad McGuigan, their 1995 winning captain, has six winner's medals. Michael McMullan spoke to them about their memories.

***
If you build it, they will come. The ghostly words inspired Ray Kinsella to build a 'field of dreams' in the middle of his Iowa corn field in Kevin Costner's 1989 film of the same name.

Craigbane also built for the future. A sharp left turn off the Slieveboy road and Gerry Crossan Park edges into view at the foot of Glenrandel brae. A state-of-the-art hall and gym. A fully floodlit pitch and one with training lights. A running track and a windmill spinning in the background. It's well used, worth every penny and the hours of planning.

Gavin Conwell, Ulster winning captain in 2011, is the club's Youth Officer and is passing on his knowledge to the next crop. Alfie Dallas, George Sharkey and Brian Conway also used the hall to the max. The future is in safe hands.

Former senior manager Kevin Moore and Kieran McElhinney manage the minors. Ryan McDaid is involved with the U14s. John Óg Donaghy is Chairman. Former goalkeepers Paul McLaughlin and Gerard McLaughlin are on the committee. It's their turn to put a different stamp on the club.

Next month, Craigbane will continue their rebuilding process in the unfamiliar surroundings of junior, almost 20 years since they were fingertips away from knocking Ballinderry out of the 2001 Derry championship. The same season the Shamrocks ended as All-Ireland champions.

The last decade ravaged Craigbane's senior team of physicality and experience. Year by year, the youth has been thrown in. Now, they're finding their feet. St Columb's Derry and Cathair Dhoire school teams have emerged with a Craigbane imprint. When St Patrick's and St Brigid's Claudy school team, under the guidance of current senior player Brian Rainey, there was also a strong Craigbane core.

Craigbane's 2016 U16 championship winning team

All coming from their U16 championship winning team of 2016, when they beat a fancied Kilrea.

“We, as a club, needed it,” manager Conrad McGuigan said after the game.

“At the start of the year they beat us by 16 or 17 points, but I saw something in our boys in the second half – they didn’t lie down.”

By September, they overturned the Pearses to land the silver.

***

After early signs of football in the area during the 1930s, St Joseph's Craigbane wasn't founded until 1972 and after a Division Three title, the 1985 reserve success was their first championship.

“We were starting to get to finals at that time,” Conrad McGuigan remembers of the beginning. “In 1986, it was the 50th year of the Dr Kerlin Cup, it was our first final and we won it.”

McGuigan, not yet 17, was beginning to cut his teeth in the senior team. After an appearance in the semi-final, he didn't play in the final against Loup.

“The team included more of the older hands, it was a very settled team,” McGuigan outlines, before rattling off some of the names.

“Noel Moore, Gerard McLaughlin, Shane Lynch, Harry 'Roe' McLaughlin, Paddy Cartin, George Sharkey, Dermot Gormley and Damian O'Kane.

“There were four Gormley brothers, Peter, God rest him, Colm, Leo and Brendan,” he adds.

With the clash of green, Loup played in Ballinderry colours and Craigbane purchased a set of Down jersies for the game.

“I also remember Loup taking home Martin O'Brien from England for the game,” Conrad recalls. “He was a big player for them and that was the worry. Loup were favourites, but it worked out okay for us in the end.”

With a first championship in the bag, McGuigan also hails Paul Dixon as being a 'huge influence' on the team. He had returned from a stint with Burnley and was playing with Glentoran at the time.

In 1987, it took a replay to get over reigning junior champions Greenlough in the semi-final. Injury to Peter Gormley and his brother Colm's sending off robbed them of their midfield pairing, remembers goalkeeper Gerard McLaughlin. Gerry McElhinney came home from England to answer the call.

Craigbane found themselves seven points down in the latter stages of the final to Claudy. Earlier in the game, Dixon missed a penalty and turned down the chance to take Craigbane's second penalty. Nobody else fancied it and up stepped McGuigan and his goal sparked their comeback.

The Craigbane team pictured before the 1987 replay win over Claudy

Still Claudy held the upper hand and it look a last throw of the dice, Conrad remembers.

“There was about two minutes left and I put a ball into the square, it was more of a 'Hail Mary' and he (Paul) punched it into the net.

The goal earned a replay, which Craigbane won, 0-11 to 0-9 and retained their title, leading to a four-year stint in the senior championship.

Away from the clubscene, McGuigan played in St Mary's Belfast's 1989 Sigerson Cup win over UCC. He was also playing with Derry U21s and Tommy Diamond had called him into the senior panel, where he saw some initial action.

While success followed his career path, so too did injury. If two leg breaks weren't enough, a dislocated elbow and putting out his shoulder 'a few' times added to the woe.

***

Tyrone has played a central part in Fergal Moore's life. As a corner forward, he played up front with Geoffrey McGonigle on the Derry minor team, beaten by the Red Hands at Omagh in 1991.

Married and living close to Errigal Ciaran's home in Dunmoyle for the last 25 years, saw him faced with a 70 mile return journey to train and play with Craigbane. Despite being approached by the Tyrone giants to transfer and the lure of senior championship football, he stuck with his roots.

“We would've been training twice a week and maybe three times coming up to championship,” Moore outlines. “I was asked to join (Errigal) but I never really thought about it. If Craigbane didn't have a game, I would go and watch Errigal.”

Loyalty to home club was too much, though he has helped coach his daughter Micheala's ladies team.

“I have been at Tyrone (minor) games, but I have just been shouting her name,” he jokes. “You'll not get me cheering 'come on Tyrone' or anything like that.”

After starting on the Craigbane senior team as an U16 in 1989, it was 1992 before he made his championship debut, coming on as a sub in the final against Magilligan.

“It was easy enough in the finish,” he outlines of Craigbane's win.

Through the minors, he was corner forward, but after Leo Gormley hung up the number three senior jersey, Moore stepped into the berth he would hold during Craigbane's golden era.

An influx of young players came through, inspired by the teams of the 1980s.

“Everybody came in around the same age and everybody was battling for places then.” Fergal remembers.

“A lot of the young boys in the (winning team) photographs, or that were mascots were now breaking into the senior team,” adds Conrad McGuigan, who was named as 1995 senior captain.

“Boys were saying 'I want to play with our senior team' and it was a spur for the parish.”

Gerard McLaughlin, Conrad McGuigan, Kieran and Eddie McElhinney, Kevin and Fergal Moore gave a solid spine of experience.

“The boys who came in, Alfie Dallas, Jude Dooley (McCloskey), Damien and Gary McLaughlin, they all had pace. At that stage, we would've given anybody in the county a good game for it,” McGuigan stresses.

By the end of the decade and up in senior football, they clapped county champions Bellaghy on the pitch before drawing a game they could've won. Later that year, only for uncharacteristic slip from Kieran McElhinney on a wet night, to allow a '45' to slip to the net, they had Ballinderry beaten before their 2001/02 All-Ireland campaign even got off the ground.

The whirlwind story began against Banagher in the 1995 final. First of all, they needed to survive a storming Limavady comeback in the semi-final and Craigbane were lucky to hang on for a replay, which they navigated without any fuss.

“It was a wake up call for us going into the final,” McGuigan states.

Banagher had only been relegated from the first division, and were billed as favourites. The 'cream' against the 'second division team.'

“There were families with cousins involved in both clubs and the rivalry was unreal. A lot of us grew up in Craigbane and had moved back into the new housing developments in Park,” he adds.

After the influx, it raised the contentious issue...was Park in Banagher or in Craigbane?

In the league, Banagher had won 'close' games between the clubs and it was little surprise when an attendance of 'nearly 2,000' flocked to Drum for the final.

“We knew it would take a good display from them to beat us,” Conrad continues. “We were a hard team to beat when the championship came along. Self belief was starting to seep into the team and you felt you were never going to lose.

“Another influence at the time was Paddy Cassidy, who would've been Derry City's fitness trainer. Francie Deeney, who was managed the team with Eddie McElhinney, got him in.

“It was a new voice and it was a more dedicated approach to training and it all just started to gel.”

Within minutes of the throw-in, Gavin Conwell had blood gushing out of his nose and Craigbane had a penalty, which McGuigan missed. Eddie McElhinney, who came on for Conwell, slipped home a 12th minute goal to put them in the driving seat.

Paddy Cassidy and Maurice McElhinney help Gavin Conwell from the pitch during the 1995 final

Banagher lost Patrick O'Donnell to a shoulder injury and when McGuigan tagged on three points, Craigbane were on track for victory.

“It was close in the end, but it didn't reflect our superiority,” McGuigan adds.

Banagher grabbed a late goal, but Craigbane held on for a 1-8 to 1-7 win and title number four.

“I just remember the supporters going mad and streaming onto the pitch after the game,” was Fergal Moore's memory of winning the game.

“Going into those games, at that time, there was excitement, you knew there wasn't going to be much in it and everything was left on the pitch.”

“The boys went over to Farah's (bar) after the game and probably drunk the place dry,” McGuigan recalls.

“It would've have been the main place,. The craic was great and there was always a Monday club,” Fergal Moore adds. There were no trips back to Tyrone on county final nights.

***

The 1996 chapter was different. Craigbane were in five finals and lost all five by a point. In the same week of the Dr Kerlin Cup defeat to Banagher, they overturned the result to beat them in the championship, before going down to Faughanvale in a replay.

By 1997, Craigbane were top dogs again. After securing the Dr Kerlin Cup, it was like a fair day in Farah's. The story at the time was about the situation at Drumcree and local police resources were stretched. The bar was buzzing and it was the daylight hours before revellers spilled out on their way home.

There was an interesting angle in the championship final that season. Alfie Dallas, Craigbane's 1992 winning manager, was now in charge of Claudy. Low and behold, they met Craigbane in the final, with his son, Alfie junior, in fine fettle with seven points to his name in a comfortable win.

“I have more memories of beating Banagher, because it meant more to us and we had already beaten Claudy,” Conrad McGuigan commented of the 1997 success.

Sean Crossan, Shane Lynch, Gergal Moore and Gavin Conwell
look on as Conrad McGuigan lifts the 1995 championship

It was 2000 before the next championship title, again under Deeney and McElhinney. They needed a stroke of luck in the last minute against Slaughtmanus in a topsy turvy round one game. The sides were level when Sean Curran's shot hit the crossbar and came out, only to be greeted by the final whistle.

“We should've been out,” Fergal Moore admits. “They were straight through, if it had went over the bar, we were out.”

A suspension kept Gavin Conwell out of most of the championship. A re-fixed semi-final to a Friday night, hours before his ban ended, ruled him out of the win over Claudy.

Fergal Crossan's also return for the final, after a summer in Chicago that saw him win North American Player of the Year and later a call to the Derry senior team.

Victory over Newbridge in the final, who had just dropped down from senior, took Craigbane to six on the roll of honour. Before the official Ulster championship, Clontibret ran Ulster tournament and this was Craigbane's first venture following delay because of foot and mouth.

“I remember us going over the border and having to go across a sheep-dip type thing, where everything had to be washed,” McGuigan remembers.

It was new ground, new teams, food on the way and a bus journey to the game. With every round, they grew as a team.

“We beat Belcoo, Termon, Beragh and Inniskeen,” came the list of the teams rolling off Fergal Moore's tongue, of their passage to glory.

“Inniskeen was a right hard game,” he remembers of their 1-9 to 1-7 win.

“We beat Beragh 2-15 to 'five or six' points. The Tyrone teams were always good and Beragh weren't long down from senior...it was probably the easiest game we played.”

Fergal retired five years ago from reserve football at the age of 42, having picked up a fifth medal and a second Ulster in 2011, as part of a panel managed by his brother Kevin and containing nephews Lee, Ryan and Rory.

Conrad finished up in 2008, aged 43, but after having a 'great innings', he has a regret not to have hung on longer for the club's seventh championship.

“I had played a bit of reserve football. The legs were starting to go, my game was based on pace. I was so lucky and looking back it was the right time for me to stop. I wouldn't have been playing (in 2011), but just to be part of it and missing the the buzz of being involved when the club is on a run.”

Now, it is all about the next generation and McGuigan, like many around the club, is confident. If they can avoid a swathe of emigration, the future is bright.

“There is enough talent within our club, if we can get over the next few years, to win something at another level, whatever grade that might be.”

When Gavin Conwell lifted the Ulster Cup on a magical 2011 night in Omagh, he called for a gathering the next day in the clubhouse. So all the 'young weans' could see all the cups. It sounded impulsive, but it wasn't. It was time to strike when the iron was hot.

A decade on, those youngsters are now the tools to build Craigbane's next team to challenge for a championship.

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