Ballymaguigan celebrate their 2013 junior championship title
Ballymaguigan reached the last two senior ladies finals on the back of an increased underage drive. Chairman Paul Crozier recalls the early shoots of ladies football in the club and their success along the way. Michael McMullan tells the story...
It's not a case of if, but rather when Ballymaguigan ladies will win their first senior championship. That's how Paul Crozier sees it and he hopes the current senior squad will adopt the 'win or learn' attitude to losing the last two deciders.
He managed Derry senior ladies to the 2018 Ulster title and is now the club's Chairman and oozes GAA in every way. He lives and breathes Ballymaguigan.
“We are all the one club,” Paul begins. “It has always been under the one umbrella.”
It was during the 2001 season that the idea of ladies football first floated around Ballymaguigan.
Brendan Walls, Jacqueline Cassidy (née McCartney) and Shauna Cassidy got chatting. Soon the wheels began to turn.
“They decided they would get girls out, mostly at underage,” Paul outlines. “It then began to gather a bit of momentum and some of the older girls came out.”
In time, it would give the girls an avenue to play and to go on to represent Derry and have their chance to play in Croke Park.
“We are a small club, but we have big names. We are not even a square mile,” he said of Ballymaguigan, who share a parish with neighbouring Newbridge.
In terms of men's football, Ballymaguigan – despite being one of the smallest clubs in Ireland – can boast three Derry senior managers. Jim McKeever and Eamonn Coleman both won Ulster championships, while also playing for the county. A third, Paddy Crozier, brought league success. Dinny McKeever was a selector under Eamonn when he brought the Sam Maguire to Derry and Seamus Doyle managed the county minors.
On the ladies football scene, Brendan Walls and Paul Crozier managed the county seniors, with Conor Henry, Sinead Brady, Ned O'Neill, Sean Bradley and Damian Nugent also part of various management teams at different ages.
Declan McNally is part of the Derry minor ladies' management this season, while Pascal Doyle – a cog in the Ballymaguigan production line – is also involved with the county.
“We are a proud club of producing people for Derry ladies management teams,” Paul states.
“Seeing a couple of your girls running out on the field (at Croke Park), that's what it is all about. Letting those girls have their dream. A lot of the girls that have gone through our youth teams have all been playing for Derry teams since they started.”
At the start, their ladies focus during those first few years was at underage – both at U14 and U16 level. It was more in a training capacity, with the 'odd challenge match' thrown in.
When the All-Ireland Féile came to neighbouring Tyrone in 2004, the operation grew another set of legs.
“That was our first real team put together to go to the Féile,” Paul remembers. “They did very well, and came out of their group. I remember going to watch them in Carrickmore and moved on to Greencastle.”
With their host club being so close, in Stewartstown, they didn't have the experience of travelling the country and the bonding between the girls and their families.
At the time, the club made a banner with all the girls' faces on it, of the team that started their ladies football adventure.
“From the photo, Caoimhe O'Kane Shauna Walls, Ashling O'Neill, Cliodhna Bradley are still playing football – that was the era who started it,” Paul states.
At the time, their fledgling senior team was made up of girls in their teens and twenties coming out to play football. It was all new, there were no earlier foundations to build on.
“The likes of Caroline Graham, Shauna Cassidy, Michelle Diamond (née Cassidy). When we got a team up and running, Michelle was the first captain.
The 'Quigan entered a senior into the Junior B league in 2002 and won it the following year, before going on to contest three junior finals in succession to Ballerin, Ballinascreen and Dungiven in the mid to late nineties.
“It was some achievement, they had only started two years and they had won that,” Crozier proudly states.
The first junior title didn't arrive until 2013 with a win over Magherafelt at Desertmartin. It was the start of their senior team's progression.
The following year, up in the intermediate grade, they went all the way to the final where they lost to Ballinascreen.
In 2016, under Paul's guidance, they annexed their first intermediate title with victory over Claudy in the final at the end of an unbeaten season.
The seeds were sown before their opening game in the senior league. After a challenge game with Edendork, they came to play Glen who had won all but one of their 19 senior championships which they'd win later that season.
Crozier remembers telling the 'Quigan girls they weren't there to play Glen, but were there to beat them.
“We went out and beat them, you'd have thought they'd won an All-Ireland,” he remembers.
“After that, we had some year. It was a mindset...believing you could win.”
It took them to a first intermediate title in a season that saw the club win every title barring the senior league.
The senior team's run fed into the promotion to the senior championship. The following year, in 2017, they were knocked out of the championship by Ballinascreen for the first of three successive years.
In 2019, under manager Sean Brady , Ballymaguigan beat Steelstown in the semi-final on their way to a first ever senior decider.
However, the succumbed to the reigning champions in an Owenbeg monsoon and last year the 'Quigan were also runners-up, this time to Steelstown.
Of the team that played in that first Féile year in 2004, four are still playing football to this day, but the underage teams that followed have built a base for a team that have the tools to stay in the senior grade for the foreseeable future.
“We really put a big emphasis on the underage around 2010” Crozier points out. “It was gathering momentum and we were trying to get more people involved. We started a Friday night training with boys and girls.”
It saw numbers swell over the next few seasons, with the likes of Caoimhe O'Kane, Annie Crozier, Erin O'Neill, Aisling O' Neill and Anna Martin playing on the boys' teams. But when they stepped out of the U12 grade, there were no teams for them to play on. It was time to yank the ladies' plans up another notch.
“We decided to get numbers out to form a team of their own. We had to, or they wouldn't get football,” Paul adds.
“A great thing happened in 2010, when the Féile came to Derry. That was a big thing at the time for all clubs, both that year and in 2013, and we had big numbers out for that.”
2011 U13 champions
That was the beginning of a generation that swept all before them at underage and forms the basis of their senior team now. They got a taste of that winning feeling.
“We also took a lot of hammerings, at senior level especially,” Paul adds.
There is the satisfaction of success, but it didn't come without the hurt. While it 'might sound rosy' now, they didn't have their own way at the start,
“It would have been easy to have kept their heads down but they stuck at it,” adds Paul, who points to an U13 title in 2011 as the start of their glorious run.
“That team gathered momentum, the majority of that team is playing to this day. They never knew anything else other than winning.”
Three U14 championship and Féile doubles developed into five U16 championships and later four minor titles in an trophy-laden run. There was an All-Ireland semi-final appearance at Féile level.
Apart from the senior league, Ballymaguigan won every other title available to them in 2016
'Most of them' are now in the senior ranks now. In just short of two decades, ladies football is firmly established in Ballymaguigan.
While medals and trophies poured in, it wasn't all about having the big numbers like some of the bigger clubs.
Some of the players played camogie with Newbridge and vice versa, but it was a case of working with what they had.
“That has been a very good relationship, it is a given,” Paul said of their link with the 'Bridge.
“The down side of it is, the wee girls are out every night between football, camogie and school teams. They enjoy it and that is the most important thing.
“It didn't matter what age they were, we let them come in. If they were a few years young for a team, they weren't turned away,” Paul explains.
“Those at nine or ten years-old, who were togging out with the U14s, were getting three or four years of good football at U14 level and the same at U16. It helped them get a good run at football.
“We weren't blessed with numbers, we always needed the younger girls to make out the teams. Even the minor teams that won the championships, we'd have been working out of 18 or 19 players.”
Nobody was left behind. Crozier takes pride in recognising a high standard across the board. They may not have had a plethora of star players, but 'everyone was a good player' and it brought the level up.
Some of the girls struggling to grasp the basic skills were taken to the side for extra advice. The simple things, like a backward spin on the ball and a proper curl on the toe to help with solo running. Anything to help.
“It made them feel important,” Paul adds. “They all progressed big time and ended up among our good players. You just have to spend the time with them.
“There was a core of people involved in taking the teams and we tried to keep those coaches together through the system.”
All the while, the journey has been mapped out with a timeline of photos and memories that will chart the journey so far. The teams coming behind aren't cutting new ground, but merely following a growing project.
Ballinascreen lost three finals in a row before their first senior title. A willingness to learn mixed with hurt is a great cocktail for development, provided there is no surrender.
“We are at a crossroads now,” Crozier admits. “The girls who came up the ranks know nothing only winning, but they have now experienced defeat. It is how they deal with it now.”
He backs them to dust themselves down and join the title challenge once again.
“They can either take defeat and lie down, or grasp it and push on and I have no doubt that they will push on,” Crozier adds.
“They underperformed in finals. They didn't even come close to what they can do and they know that themselves.
“Part of the reason for them not performing over the past few years in finals, I think, was the mix of old and new. The younger girls have come up through a tightly-knit team and now they have to blend in, old and new. But it will come, it takes time.
He compares it to men's underage teams in Lavey, coming up the ranks together and every player knowing each other's next step.
“You'd see the likes of Collie McGurk coming onto the ball and he was able to fire it off to someone...they didn't even have to look. These girls are the same.
“They played the ball left and right to somebody coming in support. They know how to play together, so it's a matter of them all bringing that to senior level.”
The club have also begun to think outside the box and a need to cater for their growing numbers at senior level, as their underage production line continues to churn out players. They have made representation to field a reserve team at a lower grade.
“They may not have got a game all year in senior football and we could've lost them,” Crozier admits.
“It would be a safeguard for those girls and the older hands who feel they are not fit for this (senior) any more, but would play junior B. It could be a case of playing 13-a-side on a separate night.”
“We may not have enough numbers to do that, but we'll not be far away and if not this year, then definitely next year.”
The hard work continues.
“We have numerous coaches involved – for both girls and boys – led by Johnny McPeake as Youth Officer over the past few years,” Crozier concludes.
Twenty years later that initial conversation to begin their underage has transformed their club. If they can get their elusive first senior title, it will prove to have been a master-stroke.
BALLYMAGUIGAN LADIES' ROLL OF HONOUR
Junior B League
U13 FC, U15 B FC
U16 B FC
U14 FL, U14 A FC, U16 B FC, Junior FC
U14 FL, U14 A FC, U14 Féile, U16 A FC, U16 FL
U14 FL, U14 A FC, U14 Féile, U16 A FC, U16 FL
U14 FL, U14 A FC, U14 Féile, U16 A FC, U16 FL, Minor A FC, Minor FL, Intermediate FC
U14 Ciara Ryan Tournament, U16 FL, U16 A FC, Minor FL, Minor A FC
U16 FL, U16 A FC, Minor FL, Minor A FC
U14 FL, U16 FL, U16 A Shield, Minor FL, Minor A FC, Minor Siobhan McCann Sevens
U16 South Derry Carnabhal Na Peile, U18 South Derry Carnabhal Na Peile, Senior South Derry Carnabhal Na Peile
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