The race for the Joe Brolly Cup is one horse short this year, with perennial challengers Ogra Colmcille, sadly, no longer in junior football.
This could’ve been the 108th season of senior football in the Drummullan parish, with the current club formed in 1974 as an amalgamation of Littlebridge and the Windmill club in Tyrone.
The first season saw Ogra win the league, followed by a junior title in 2001 and seven years in the intermediate ranks before dropping back down again.
“In hindsight, those years we were in intermediate football, we should have stayed in junior football and won the odd junior championship here and there,” admitted Ogra Chairman Martin Devlin.
“We would’ve picked up the odd player here and here from neighbouring clubs. If we had done that, we’d have survived another two or three years. So other clubs can learn.”
There was a decade long underage amalgamation, Ogra More, with neighbours Moneymore. It began with a surplus of Ogra players but by 2012 it had disintegrated.
Currently two minors play their football with Ballinderry, there isn’t a single U16 in the parish while the sole U14 also plays with the Shamrocks.
“At U12 and U10, there might be three or four here and there,” pointed out Ogra Chairman Martin Devlin, who also coaches Ballinderry minors.
“There is no underage in the parish. Down the years there have been two lads in the parish that haven’t played football because they have absolute no interest….those two wouldn’t keep us afloat,” Devlin added.
There hasn’t been a house built in the parish in 17 years and the local Drummullan Primary School, has a P7 class of nine pupils, of which eight are girls.
“We have had no housing in our area, anyone who marries in our area has to move out. If he can play football, he will play elsewhere.”
Despite battling against dwindling numbers, the Drummullan side always swam against the tide to keep themselves afloat.
After the Ogra More arrangement concluded, Devlin had an informal discussion with Ballinderry about tapping into the players that didn’t graduate into the Shamrocks’ senior squad after minor.
“Ballinderry gave us, over the last four or five years, 11 or 12 players and it kept us afloat,” Devlin outlined. They also mopped up players from nearby Cookstown.
Their threadbare squad didn’t lend itself to a week to week league campaign but when the championship came along, they were a different proposition.
In 2016 they took league champions Drum to a replay. The following year they beat reigning champions Magilligan, despite playing 46 minutes with 14 men. In the semi-final they led eventual winners Doire Trasna by a point deep in stoppage time before Micheal McNaught’s free forced a replay they lost convincingly.
Last year, Ogra struggled to get a glove on Magilligan before falling 3-10 to 0-10 to neighbours Moneymore.
It was to be their last game. It wasn’t a decision they made lightly.
“At the back of our mind, we knew this day was coming. Anyone who knows Ogra will feel we survived two, three or four years longer than we should’ve,” Devlin commented.
The final straw was the league restructuring at the start of this season. Of the 21 players used in the 2018 championship campaign, seven would be unavailable.
With numbers working against them, combined with ageing limbs and players on the wrong side of 30, there was a realisation that they couldn’t be competitive.
Connor Ward, Stephen and Thomas Devlin were among those who called time on their careers.
“Those boys have been great servants of the club and I can't fault them,” Devlin stressed.
At the start of the season, the plan was to field a team in the junior championship but with no football for the rest of the season, players weren’t prepared to commit and the Cookstown players transferred back.
A meeting was called to ascertain the next step, but with only ‘four of five’ players left – not getting football – it wasn’t enough.
It was a sorry end to the tradition of football in the parish, with the remaining players throwing their lot in with Ballinderry reserves.
Sitting over coffee, a number of mannerisms easily become apparent about Martin Devlin.
Firstly he is an astute thinker and secondly, he possesses a passionate vocabulary of all things football.
From the competitive nature of Tyrone club football, to the need for Derry to follow suit and produce county players in lower divisions.
There is also an admiration for how the Dubs play the game.
Beyond it all, there is a deep pride of place and a duty to those who went before him. Those that founded the club.
“I would like to highlight,” he stressed. “We haven't sat on our hands this year, we've been proactive.”
Ogra have weighed in behind the newly formed St Finbarr’s hurling initiative that boasts 130 members – including 60 underage players from U6 to U12.
“We take pride in our field, we funded it ourselves, we are debt free, it’s a community facility that we want to keep.”
The club provide St Finbarr’s with a pitch, maintain it and pay their insurance.
“I will give Brian (Smith) his dues, we have worked closely with him and he has very keen to keep us afloat and survive.”
Devlin hopes that Ogra will return next year, perhaps fielding in the recreational leagues.
“Our ambition to stimulate the area and generate a bit of interest in the club. We have been working in collaboration with the local (Drummullan) Community Group and they have funding under Rural Villages Regeneration Project,” Devlin pointed out.
A walkway is in the pipeline, something to give the community an initial focus.
“When the parents are walking or running, the children are on the pitch playing. It is like starting again with grassroots and seeing if we can grow a club but at the minute we have ran out of numbers.”
Another idea Devlin brought up, was the chance of Ogra becoming a feeder club. The ins and outs would need thrashed out.
It centres around a ‘loan system’ with minors who don’t make the senior squad in Ballinderry in their first year, could play junior football with Ogra with the view to transferring back.
It is not just something his club could benefit from, as he points out.
“If you take Dungiven, they have a world of underage players. If they are not getting football, could they not be loaned out to Drum, who are struggling.”
While he concedes, the parochial structure of the GAA would made the concept a hard sell.
“I think we have got to be bigger than that,” he stressed. “There are a number of clubs in Derry who have a number of players who are the wrong side of 30 and then they quit, there are not that many ready-made replacements. Maybe in the next five or ten years, a lot of clubs in Derry will struggle.”
For now the corner of Derry, on the Tyrone border are the only cohort to have left the stage.
This weekend, their absence from the club championship is the start of a worrying trend.
Devlin and Ogra vow to bounce back, but the GAA are in danger of losing a part of itself.
Pic: Mary K Burke
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