Yes Nemo, Slaughtneil have their eyes on March too

Nemo Rangers, Slaughtneil are coming for you.

The men in maroon will have celebrated the arrival of another Seamus McFerran Cup in their clubrooms as befitting such a special guest, but in the Athletic Grounds, there was no cartwheels, no fireworks.

Captain Patsy Bradley made a speech with a dozen team-mates gathered around the foot of the stand. The players joked throughout it. An eerie hush there was not. But Patsy, much like The Bull McCabe described his son Tadhg in ‘The Field’, is no natural orator.

Once the hip-hips were out of the way, there was even a tacit agreement that they wouldn’t make a God out of the trophy. Half a dozen players went up the steps to get their wee cheer, but others on the ground, such as the McKaigue brothers, called up for those up there to just carry the canister down with them.

If that’s not a statement of intent, then consider this. Brendan Rogers, who has the ability to become the finest full-back in the sport, was apprehended for an interview. Unprompted, he began answering questions in the context of Nemo Rangers, name-checking them.

One more? Ok. Assistant manager John Joe Kearney said; “We heard in the second half that Nemo had beaten them.”

While the game was on.

So, Slaughtneil have claimed the impossible mission of defending provincial titles in camogie (a bit of a sweat on against Loughgiel in the final), hurling (a comfortable stroll against Ballygalget) and football (ditto here).

With thirteen of the starting hurlers in the football squad, it speaks of a special culture in a club that has become the envy of all others.

And they are a bit of throwback. Manager Mickey Moran doesn’t bother with sweepers. Alongside him, Kearney wears a pair of jeans on the sideline. Where would ye get it?

During the week, this northern correspondent happened to mention to Kearney that his son was running a high temperature. Just idle chit-chat at the fag-end of a conversation. In the tunnel afterwards, Kearney approached and with a handshake, asked after the health of the young fella. This was as far from Stephen Cluxton answering a post-All-Ireland final question with two fingers in your mouth as you could get.

Whatever it is about them, the men and women of a tiny part of south Derry relish the winters closing in around them and the carnival of success.

“Our winter is funny,” said Chairman Sean McGuigan last week.

“Every other team has quit playing football six weeks ago or two months ago. But we are going on now with camogie, hurling and football. Everybody looks forward to this every weekend and you never notice the winter. Slaughtneil people have too much to look forward to.”

But one thing cannot be denied, at least in Ulster; the club scene is regularly saving the perception of Gaelic football.

This summer the county provincial Championship, got off to a stinker with Monaghan-Fermanagh and continued even worse when Antrim were swatted aside by Donegal.

On it limped, with only the shock win of Down over Monaghan to recommend it with a succession of mis-matches and grindingly predictable football, skills becoming the variables that are squeezed out of the equation.

Held up as a comparison to this club series, the county game is a vulgar, ugly sister. Apart from the obvious point that inter-county football is now hopelessly in thrall and tangled up in its’ own importance, there is no room left for the unpredictable with teams knowing too much about each other and players surrendering themselves to conformity.

At club level still, you get a taste of the helter-skelter and Slaughtneil had plenty of moments to feel the stomach flutters.

In the preliminary round, a last second exocet free from the boot of Kilcoo’s Darragh O’Hanlon, fisted over by Patsy Bradley, saved them.

They played out a cracker against Omagh in driving wind and rain off the Foyle, while their contest against Kilcar produced 36 scores and a winning tally of 2-17.

Last weekend’s Ulster semi-final replay between Derrygonnelly Harps and Cavan Gaels came with a health warning that in 80 odd minutes the week before there hadn’t been a single goal chance. The replay had eleven of them as both sides threw away the initiative a few times each. And it was settled with a goal six minutes into injury time.

Contests and epics such as these leave the football public of Ulster satisfied and foddered for the winter. As a result, attendances are flourishing.

Ten years ago, with the Tyrone-Armagh rivalry still intact and in the hunt for All-Ireland titles, just over 6,000 made their way to Pairc Esler for Crossmaglen’s win over St Gall’s in the final.

Here, the official attendance was 7,591. The club game is gaining serious traction.

Imagine what games of this kind would be like under a summer sky?


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