Na Magha have enjoyed some high points this year. Pic by Tom Heaney, nwpresspics
Na Magha's progress continued in 2020, even if it was a year to forget for many clubs.
Just over four years from the late Martin McGuinness officially opening Pairc Na Magha, the club hosted its first Senior Championship game, and there is no underestimating just how momentous that occasion was.
Sport has been brought crashing to a halt due to the coronavirus this year, and for community clubs like Na Magha, it has brought significant challenges and that sense of camaraderie which flows through the club has taken on a different meaning in 2020.
Still though, Na Magha can look back the past 12 months and know that they have done well considering the circumstances.
Actually, it’s a lot better than that, the club has created history, not just for itself, but for the city also.
In those four years from when Martin cut the ribbon, the volunteers at the club have been relentless in their pursuit of growth, and enthusing everyone around them with their ambition. So when Sunday, July 26 came around, it was more than just a first time match on their own doorstep.
It was everything, a huge step forward for the small ball game in the county.
Coach Dee Doherty appreciates the importance of that game against Lavey as much as anyone.
“It was a big day out,” he acknowledged. “James, the Chairman, was looking to make a bigger deal out of it, although with things going the way they were this year we couldn’t really make a deal about anything could you? I remember playing hurling with Sean Mellon at underage level and him trying to find us a field somewhere to train in and play hurling, and now we have our own base, our own club and people know where to come to play hurling.
“It was a big thing for us to hold our first Senior Championship game there and in fact, our Under-14s won the Division ‘B’ Championship up on our pitch this year as well so, being able to do them things, at your own ground and in front of your own supporters, and the young ones on front of their parents, is massive for us.”
That U14 win was just another slice of history for Na Magha, as the club’s young stars defeated Banagher in the county final, and how special it was to do it on a place they could now call home.
Jude Bryson captained the team and Cathal McNicholl scored the winning goal as Na Magha held on to win the trophy for the first time in their history, winning 2-3 to 1-5.
The work being done at underage is further proof that the cub is always looking at the future. The ball is always rolling at the Ballyarnett club.
“The likes of Ciaran McCarron and Malachy McCarron and Breandan Quigley Junior have been doing a load of work at underage level in bringing boys through the underage ranks,” Doherty agrees.
“Now we have the minor team coming through and because of the change in the age group they will all be essentially senior players next year. That will be a good boost of players into that senior panel.
“We can look back and say for what was there and what was available, we didn’t have a bad year.
“ I suppose we would have liked to have seen a couple of results, the problem being we were straight into the Championship as opposed to having the league to build up to the Championship.
“It was successful year in that we competed at Championship level and we seem to have a good base coming through for the years ahead. We can look forward to the future with the younger players.”
In many ways, Doherty epitomises the progress that drives everyone at Na Magha on. A quick look at the numbers at training, an the ability to field two senior teams this year, which hadn’t been the case before, shows that there is a growing surge of belief at the club.
In the Championship, despite the new format, Na Magha stood toe to toe with Lavey and competed well against a Slaughtneil reserve side but it was always going to be a struggle against Banagher with several players missing from injury, and so it proved.
Na Magha were not just in the Championship to make up the numbers, as their game against Lavey in particular, proved.
“You go out to any Championship game to win it and when you lose it it’s not nice, especially at senior level,” Dee insists.
“I know everyone says it’s great to compete and it’s good to do this and it’s good to do that but essentially as a senior team, you’re going out to win your matches, and we were going out to the Lavey game to win it. We wanted to win it, and we were beaten by five or six points, but again, when you look back and reflect on it, maybe a few years ago that might have been 15 or 20 points. For us, the gap seems to be closing a bit.
“You could look back and say the match against Banagher then and say the points difference was immense, but by that stage we had maybe seven first team players out with injury and it all caught up on us. The Lavey game was probably our highlight of the year but then injuries caught up with us after that.”
The pandemic forced a rethink of ideas and as a result, a new Championship format was born with all eight hurling clubs competing. The bottom two in each group competed in the junior semi-finals, while the two losing senior semi-finalists contested the intermediate decider. It ultimately didn’t work out in Na Magha’s favour, other than giving them games against teams they would usually not come up against at Championship level.
“We were happy enough with it when we looked at it, but again, when you reflect back on it….” Dee reflects.
“You essentially had a Junior final in Derry and the only two junior teams that were in Derry weren’t in the final so in that respect it makes it a bit harder to have something to gear towards during the year.
“I suppose we have to look at it and say look, for us to get up the grades, we have to go out and start beating teams and beating the likes of the Banaghers and the Ballinascreens and Laveys. There are light years between the likes of Slaughtneil and Dungiven but I don’t think we are too far away from the other teams.
“The Championship format will be what the Championship format is – it is up to us to raise our game and for the players to step up to it and start beating these teams to progress.”
Whatever the future holds in the Championship, hurling is growing in strength, with Slaughtneil’s gesture earlier in the year, to play the game in Derry city, saying a lot about the desire to expand the reach of the sport in the coming years, beyond its traditional borders.
“Hats off to Mick McShane, the players and the club in general,” Dee insists. “It was a good gesture to come into us because it’s a long old drive to Slaughtneil. We actually ended up having a fairly decent game against them, although it was a reserve team. It was another good game.
“The more games we can get into the city the better at that level, and when teams are prepared to go out of their way and do it for you, it just shows to me that Slaughtneil is a tea that wants to promote hurling in Derry.
“They could have sent in their full team and the game would have been over in 15 minutes maybe but they took the opportunity to come into us, and they put out a team that made it a competitive game.”
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