BY CHRIS MCNULTY
‘EASILY the biggest game in this club’s history’ reckons Gary McDaid, the Glenswilly manager as he readies himself for the biggest day of his own youthful managerial career.
Ballinderry stand in Glenswilly’s way of a fairytale ending to what is only their second ever Ulster SFC campaign. It is remarkable to think that Sunday’s final in Omagh will be only the club’s fifth at senior level in the province.
Glenswilly’s storybook rise to contesting an Ulster senior final has been well documented, but when it comes to the crunch on Sunday the size of the dogs won’t matter a jot.
Rather, it is a battle of the wits of McDaid and Martin McKinless, the Ballinderry boss; a war of attrition between the novices of Glenswilly and the experienced heads of Ballinderry.
Glenswilly have the stomach for whatever Ballinderry will thrust their way on Sunday and there is the feeling in Glenswilly that they hadn’t made the most of their last foray into Ulster. When they defeated Cavan Gaels in 2011 the tails were up, but subsequently lowered by Latton, the Monaghan champions, in Ballybofey.
“We probably shouldn’t have lost that day,” McDaid says now.
“It was our worst performance of the year and we still were only beat by a point.
“There was a lot of hurt there and a lot of people felt we had unfinished business in this competition.”
Their Championship year started with the pain of last year’s inglorious conclusion still lingering.
When they lost to Kilcar in Towney, few would have given them odds on winning Dr Maguire, let alone beating their way to the Ulster final.
They have been in so many do-or-die scenarios this year.
In the final group game they headed for The Bridge, minus Neil Gallagher and simply having to win. They lost Ciaran Bonner and Leon Kelly during that game but they managed to prise the win.
McDaid says: “It doesn’t seem to really matter. The lads there know that if someone is injured there is another lad waiting to come in, do the job and fit into the system of play. They’re all very confident in their own ability and the team’s ability.
“It’s something we’d always emphasise to the lads as a management team. We always tell them we’ll be using more than the 15 players we start with. We used 19 the last day and we’ve used 20 at times throughout the year.
“That lifts things at training. When lads know they’re going to get an opportunity they’ll show in training and that give us something to think about ahead of the weekend.
“On match day, if we can get the gameplan down, we’re confident that we’ll be there or there abouts at the end of the game.
“We are being presented with these opportunities and it’s important that we grab them. Right now our club has a good bunch of players and it’s important that this group achieves as much as it can.”
The words of Gary McDaid will be ringing in their minds: “Make the most of now because you never know when it’ll come around again.”
Last Friday night the club held an Up For The Match event. The packed clubhouse watched, late in the show, as a showreel of good luck messages popped up from around the globe.
You would have heard the proverbial pin drop when the image appeared of Shaun Burke. Now based in Australia, he would be playing on Sunday but for his enforced emigration. His words are likely to ring around the dressing room again on Sunday.
With the Ballinderry front line consisting of Ryan Bell, Conleith Gilligan, Coilin Devlin and Daniel McKinless, not to mention the contributions of Michael McIver, who scored 1-2 with the number 4 on his back against Kilcoo in their semi-final, Glenswilly will have no end of difficultites.
Against Roslea, they Quigley brothers, Seamus and Sean, provided the threats and it was a series of aerial raids they faced that afternoon.
“They had two marquee forwards that were racking up big scores in their own championship. It was a huge ask of us as a team to contain those lads. It was a challenge to stop those boys,” McDaid says.
“We’d come up against a lot of good individual forwards but not a twosome like that there. I think we did well. We held Seamie to two points from play. Sean didn’t score at all.”
McDaid, Johnny McGinley, Aidy Glackin and company will have studied Ballinderry in depth over the last fortnight and their plan to counteract the three-in-a-row Derry champions will be fascinating to see. Glenswilly have managed to tailor their approach to the opposition so far.
There are unanswered questions for both teams.
You wonder how good Ballinderry have been when you consider that Clonoe were deadbeat from their county final, Scotstown feel they could and should have got over the line and Kilcoo were mentally drained and looking physically broken following their marathons against Crossmaglen.
On the flip side, Glenswilly have been living on the edge with Kilcar spuring three chances in added time in the Donegal quarter-final, Ardara came back from seven down and forced Glenswilly into shaking themselves, while Killybegs and Roslea, at times, exposed a certain fragility in their midst.
There remains the danger that Ballinderry may have too much in their arsenal, but then again the counter argument is the plotting McKinless and Fabian Muldoon will have to be at to attempt to thwart Michael Murphy’s precocious talents.
The return of Colin Kelly has been massive as it enables Glenswilly to pull Murphy out the field without leaving the full-forward line looking neglected. With only 90 seconds gone in the semi-final, Kelly had the ball in the Roslea net.
McDaid said: “Colin got the goal early on and it settled the boys. In an Ulster semi-final, first time there, it’s always nice to get scores on the board. It relaxes everyone. We always try to prepare for every situation that might arise in training.
“He has always been a huge talent. Brian McIver gave him his debut for Donegal. Kilcar in the quarter-final was his first start this season (it was his first since 2010, in fact). Brian (a Ballinderry man), I’m sure , will be telling Martin McKinless all about him!
“I think he scored for Brian in Croke Park as well when he was in charge. It’s great to have Colin back on board. It’s a massive help. He has struggled with injury in recent times. Even this season, he plays a game then misses the next training session.
“We’ve a few players like that in fairness. And it’s a matter of wrapping them in cotton wool and seeing as we go.”
Ciaran Bonner’s pace, power and precision will all be called upon and Glenswilly will also need the likes of Kealan McFadden and Darren McGinley to contribute on the scoreboard with Gary McFadden needing another good tally to continue his excellent consistency of this campaign.
Glenswilly’s attacking lines have good balance, the left foot of McFadden and the right of Murphy, for example, meaning they have real threat on both sides.
It seems obvious to suggest it, but Murphy will be their main man if they’re to win. Murphy is the go-to man for the big scores and it is his ability to make something from nothing that has seen him sprinkle star dust on several big occasions. Murphy is on fire right now and with Glenswilly having plenty of other threats Ballinderry can’t afford to sacrifice many bodies to nullifying Murphy, as others have found to their cost.
Such has been Murphy’s stupendous displays, Neil Gallagher has not got as big a mention as his performances should have merited, but the 2012 All-Star is Glenswilly most important man on Sunday. From the kick outs of Philip O’Donnell and Michael Conlan, possession will be golden. James Conway and Kevin McGuckin give Ballinderry a formidable outlook here, but Gallagher has risen to the occasion before: Think of that majestic display in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Cork.
Gallagher is rooted in Glenswilly and this seems like an occasion made for the big midfielder. He’s up for the fight and game for the war. When this one goes to the crunch Gallagher won’t be found wanting.
With the focus on Murphy et al, it is Gallagher who can emerge from the shadows to propel Glenswilly to victory.
The faint of heart would be better advised to stay out of Healy Park on Sunday. This will be a battle in every sense of the word.
It will be a test of nerve never before met by this Glenswilly group. Ballinderry are the favourites, but Glenswilly should not be taken lightly. They have the game changers to win this one, so why can’t they do it?
Glenswilly to take this one to the trenches and climb out by the skin of their teeth.