Ulster Club MFC - Preliminary Round
Bellaghy v Dunloy
Sunday (1.00) – St Paul’s, Belfast

When Bellaghy’s eye for goal put a Gerard Cavlan led Dungannon minor team to the sword on a rain swept New Year’s day in 1995, it sparked a golden generation that would lead the Tones to five Derry senior titles in nine years.

It was a second Ulster minor title in four seasons for Bellaghy but it would prove to be their last appearance on Belfast’s Shaws Road.  Until now.

Bellaghy lost three county finals in the interim.  Slaughtneil beat them to complete three in a row in 2000.  Five years later, back in Lavey, it was Ballinascreen who pipped the blues at the post and also last year.

It was a fancied Bellaghy side that arrived at Celtic Park but two penalty saves from Ryan Scullion and an inspired performance ensured it would be ‘Screen’s day.

But with five of their beaten team back on board and Lorcan Spier who came on in last year’s final, they went one better and ended a 24 year gap with a victory over Lavey in a fantastic game of football.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  As Bellaghy celebrated with the Sean Brown Cup, elation filled the air.  On a scale that only comes from being absent from the top table.  And for all their underage titles in recent times, it was the current crops’ first championship.

Conleth McShane’s father Manus was on the last winning team, as was his uncle Francis Glackin as a 16 -year-old – brother of current Bellaghy minor joint manager Kieran.

Now the club’s senior manager, Joe Cassidy spearheaded the attack in 1994 and his brother Damian is now one of the minor managers.

Karl Diamond’s sons Charlie and James Diamond will take the field this Sunday.  Their uncles Paul and Mark played on the last winning team.

The Tones came through a very competitive Derry championship after finishing third in the league.  They drew with Lavey and lost to league champions Glen and Ballinascreen – three of the teams they would beat on the way to the championship title.

Kieran Glackin was in the Derry minor management team under Paddy Campbell and it gave him an insight into the players across the county.

“This year’s championship was a really competitive one.  There were six or seven teams with very little between them.  It could’ve gone to any of them,” Glackin explained.

“We had a hard draw to the final.  We picked up Glen, who were one of the favourites.  Then we had ‘Screen and then beat Dungiven comfortably enough but on the way to the final we had a hard enough path because it was such a competitive age group – more so than any other year.”

Two years ago, at U16 level, Bellaghy were ‘hammered’ by Magherafelt in the county final.  It was over well before half time, as Glackin recalled.

“This group of boys had no championship medals to their name.  They have an U16 league and that’s about it.  It (minor title) was a nice one to get, it was overdue in Bellaghy.”

With the conveyor belt of recent U14 titles coming to the club, it’s impossible to see a lull until the next minor win.

Glackin points to the senior tradition in the club and the endless supply of players coming from the underage ranks.  But then it dried up and teams weren’t winning championships and years in ‘B’ section football.

Now it has all changed.

Last Saturday night, in conjunction with ‘Friends of Bellaghy’ the club concluded their fundraising draw.  It raised over £380,000 and with their new clubhouse opened at their training base in nearby Drumanee, the Tones are beginning to climb the ladder again.

“I don’t know if it was an oversight or it was expected that the well was never going to run dry,” offered Glackin.  “It has been a massive turn that came about by a lot of the successful past players coming back to start coaching.

“It has been an eight to ten-year process that we have started rebuilding and we are hoping these players are going to come through and be very good senior footballers.”

In the background, working for the last three seasons, there has been an Ardboe influence in the form of strength and conditioning coach Mattie Brady.

At all levels, Brady has put programmes in place.  Tailored around the age of the player, the time of the season and in conjunction with their team coaches.

“We have so much time for him, the club are so lucky to have him,” Glackin added, having watched the development of the current minor team.

“We would see ourselves fairly well developed in terms of strength and conditioning.  Our minors this year were pretty strong in comparison to other teams and really stood by us.  It is not an overnight thing, it has taken until now before we have seen the benefits of it.”

It has helped on the injury prevention front.  Glackin, when speaking last week, boasted a ‘full deck’ to pick from ahead of Sunday’s game with Dunloy.

They had a warmup game which saw them run out comfortable winners over a Derry minor select, but preparations have been tailored around school football.

Derry have won the St Paul’s tournament on 15 occasions in its 36-year history, with Glen bringing the cup over the Bann in 2014 – the last of their unrivalled four in a row.

“When we set out this year, we wanted to make sure we got over the line (in Derry) because we knew we had a good bunch of players,” Glackin added.

“Then you want to progress and go on to the next stage.  There have been a few years that have slipped by (since Glen’s win) and it would be nice to win another one for Derry.

In defence, Cormac McLarnon and James Diamond remain from last year.  McLarnon could be handed the role of marking the rangy Anthony Smyth who has totted up 1-19 from full forward.

In the corner is Seaan Elliott, a dual star and son of former player Nigel.  Bellaghy will probably give Ronan McFaul the task of keeping tabs on the Dunloy top scorer.

Like McFaul, Conan Milne played on the Derry minor team, often as a sweeper and his positional sense will be important to marshal the Bellaghy back six.

Conleth McShane performed admirably for Bellaghy seniors this year and with the confidence of playing with Derry U20s, he will be the perfect partner for Kealan Friel at midfield.

If they can curb the threat of Dunloy’s Callum Scullion, who scored 1-3 from play in a man of the match county final performance against St Gall’s, it will go a long way to taking the sting out of the Antrim champions.

Dunloy have on two of the last three minor championships and lost to eventual winners Burren in the first round in 2016.

“Anyone who has won hurling and football titles, are a good enough team,” Glackin pointed out.  “I have watched a fair bit of them and they are a good team.  Seaan Elliott, he is a very good player and Smyth (Anthony) is a big lad and has a useful left foot.”

Bellaghy’s attack is led by Paul Cassidy, who has a season of senior football under his belt and with Charlie Diamond and county final goalscorer Ronan Lee in the corners, they have a dangerous inside line.

Lorcan Spier’s county final performance was right out of the top drawer.  He linked the play and kicked four points from play in a 0-6 tally.  Lee Brady has joined from Drumsurn and has been a useful addition in their link from defence.  They will hold the keys to unlock the Dunloy defence.

But playing football in December is different. Conditions are heavy and slicker football is harder to come by.  The perfect breeding ground for a senior footballer.  Days when it doesn’t always fall into place.

There is a need to roll up the sleeves and battle.  If Bellaghy can translate the joy of winning a first title in almost a quarter of a century into a hunger for more, it should take them through to a quarter final with Inniskeen.

VERDICT: Bellaghy

Pic: Mary K Burke

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Derry Now editorial team on 028 7129 6600 for Derry City stories Or 028 7774 3970 for County Derry stories. Or you can email [email protected] or [email protected] at any time.