Updated: Dec 8, 2018
There are a number of similarities between the parishes of Bellaghy and Dunloy.
Both are villages with a strong sense of community. Both clubs are named after iconic figures in Irish history and mythology. Both clubs experienced rich success at Senior level throughout the 1990s, winning Ulster titles, Wolfe Tones in football and Cúchullain's in hurling. In fact, so in sync were the two clubs that in 1995 they both lost All-Ireland finals in their respective codes.
Fittingly, following a number of lean years, both clubs put in place an organised programme of underage coaching that has led them to this 2018 St Paul's Ulster Minor Tournament meeting.
Bellaghy Youth Officer Eunan Cassidy reflects on how the wheels were put in motion in South Derry:
"It started ten years ago. We were playing B football at a lot of age groups and a few of us got together and just decided that we would put a bit back into the club after we retired from Senior Football."
Around the same time, the cogs were beginning to turn on the green and gold revolution brooding in North Antrim. Current Minor Football Manager Anthony McQuillan recalls the turning point for underage development in Dunloy:
"Dunloy built their academy ten years ago. That’s when everything started, the success now that we’re having at underage is down to that academy."
Both men are keen to stress that there is no quick solution to overhauling the club development system and acknowledge the hard work that has gone into getting the current crop of minors to this point, but there was a simple premise to both clubs' revival.
"A lot of clubs around that time would have been training once a week for six months, we decided we’d train twice a week for eleven months and improve their skills – we went back to basics," enthuses Cassidy.
McQuillan hails the benefit of the Dunloy academy during the winter months where traditionally there would have been a lull:
"Teams always have somewhere to train. If it’s a wet night they have somewhere to go. Our teams at the minute seem to play with pace. The 4G surface is good to train on, it suits our style of play."
The Cúchullain experience on 4G may well come into play at the weekend should inclement weather force St Paul's to move the fixture to one of the excellent artificial surfaces nearby, Woodlands or Spórtlann Choláiste Feirste. Competing in the tournament is not a new experience for either club.
Just two years ago Dunloy met eventual winners Burren in the opening round of the tournament on the Shaw's Road. But for a little more belief, they could have sent the Down champions packing. It is an experience that haunts Anthony McQuillan.
"The boys that played two years ago were telling them, don’t be fearing it. Burren went on and won the competition," he laments, "It was half time in the changing room that day and we all realised, ‘Hold on, we’re as good as anyone in this competition’."
"We thought because we were from Antrim that we wouldn’t really be good enough, but everybody’s eighteen, we are as good as anyone else out there in my eyes.”
Bellaghy are two-time winners of the competition, both coming in the early 1990s. Cassidy himself was involved in the breakthrough side of 1991:
"When I was a Minor in 91 we won it and then that 94 group came in behind us and that’s what made our senior team then moving forward. It gave you that taste for winning and that experience."
"It’s no fluke then that the younger crowd came in behind us again and it propelled us on for another ten, twelve years at that stage."
Both of these sides are brimming with talent and favour a very swift, attacking style of play. Bellaghy in particular have already seen some of their current minor squad featuring at Senior Championship level. The pride in Cassidy's voice is clear as he reads the roll of honour.
"Four or five of that minor team played senior this year. Conleth McShane, Patsy and Paul Cassidy, they played in Senior Championship and a few of the others played in the league."
Cassidy, who has had a central role in the development pathway of the Wolfe Tones over the last decade, explains how some original thinking has meant that these players are ready to make an immediate impact at Senior.
"Mattie Brady with his Strength and Conditioning has been very important to us over the last five years. We started that before most clubs were doing it at underage level and he’s had a pivotal role with us also."
"We got him at the very beginning of his career and Bellaghy and Mattie are intertwined now, which is great for us and great for him. Every club is now doing this at underage but we were involved with Mattie way before most clubs were thinking about it.”
Dunloy have several players of their own who can make a major impact on a match. Callum Scullion and Anton McGrath provide a superb engine for the Antrim champions, while Seaan Elliott has been involved with the Minor team for almost four years. McQuillan winces as he recalls the early goal chance that Elliott missed in the Burren fixture in 2016.
"Seaan. I remember it, just the wrong side of the post. Their whole game plan would have been gone.”
While that side initially lacked belief, the Cúchullain's manager has noted with interest how the current crop's belief has grown as the year passed.
"Two years ago after the Burren game I was so disappointed because we felt we’d left that one behind and we wanted another crack at it. At the start of this year, no one really gave us a chance of winning Antrim and to be truthful, some of our players didn’t think we could win it either."
"We hadn’t really been that successful in football from U12 to U16, he continues, "but as the season grew on they started to realise just how good we are.”
For Bellaghy, their return to this stage of Ulster competition has brought back a lot of the buzz and excitement that Cassidy remembers as a youngster coming through the 1990s.
"It’s great for the club to have the lights on at training at this time of year and it sets the example for the younger ones to think that hopefully they’ll get to that level at some stage, to be training in November and December."
"That’s the time of the year you want to be training because if you’re doing that at club level then you’re doing well in Ulster. When people are going past the club and the floodlights are on at this time of year it’s great to see and we haven’t had that in a long time.”
Both Cassidy and McQuillan were keen to praise the coaches who have given so much time and energy to the development of these players.
"We got the right people involved, good coaches, good managers and then when you start to do a wee bit better, everybody wants to buy into the whole thing. It takes a long time," a passionate Cassidy tells us.
"It’s great to have top coaches, people who believe in your own club. Coaches that, when they tell you something about your club, you believe them. It’s nice to have that standard of coaches, Danny Quinn took the minors last year with Damian, Kieran Glackin is there with Derry minors the last year."
"They’re good quality coaches and people who care about the club. None of those boys have sons even involved, they’re there because they want to put that effort into the club.”
Anthony McQuillan also pases on credit to his fellow coaches:
“The coaches that took this team before me, they taught them. This is my first year involved with these players. Their development started in the academy 10 years ago and continued right the way through with all their coaches.”
While the players involved will be focussing on the weekend's match, and ultimately the result, their mentors are looking further ahead to the impact of the current underage work at Senior level.
With football playing second fiddle in an area carved from ash, Dunloy manager Anthony McQuillan is hopeful that the enthusiasm and success generated from this group of big ball players can drive things on.
"We seem to be getting the backing from the club. Traditionally we are and always will be a hurling club, but we just want to push football on. We should be a Division 1 football team and that’s where we want to be.”
McQuillan praises the communication and co-operation that is essential in a successful dual club:
“We had joint sessions with the Minor hurlers this year. During the year we didn’t need to do as much, then once championship came in we made sure boys were only going out of the house three times a week maximum instead of four.”
With football in Bellaghy being as religious as hurling in Dunloy, Eunan Cassidy is hopeful of a return to the glory days of the 90s when the current youngsters reach the Senior ranks.
“We hope that’ll happen. But nobody hands it to you, it’s going to take more hard work over the next few years to make sure they develop physically and come through with the right skillset."
“The competition we’ve had with Magherafelt and Lavey has brought us through. We’ve been playing against these boys from six, seven years of age and we want to play at those levels and surpass them."
"People sometimes say competition isn’t a good thing, but we see it more as a challenge. You don’t rest on your laurels in Derry at the minute."
Looking to Sunday
What is clear from speaking to both camps is their eagerness to get back onto the Ulster stage and the enthusiasm for the St Paul's tournament continues to grow.
For Dunloy, their motivation will be to right the wrongs of two years ago where they feel it was left behind. With their U21 side currently in the Antrim Semi-Final, McQuillan explains how both squads have been complementing each other.
"They love playing with the group of boys that won the Minor championship two years ago, they’re all friends, it brings the two teams together. They all trained together there tonight, the boys that played two years ago were telling them, don’t be fearing it.”
For the Tones, there is a club-wide appetite to see the famous blue and white jerseys roaring the field with their familiar intensity on an Ulster stage once again. Cassidy explains:
"Most people in the club can’t wait to get up and support us in St Paul’s on Sunday, to experience that again and hopefully it goes well for us.”
Whatever they have shared in the past, they cannot share the spoils on Sunday and only one team can continue their journey.
There will be many proud clubmen standing on the sideline this Sunday afternoon watching the fruits of their many years of labour expressing themselves with an expansive attacking game surely in store from these two sides.
Read how Dunloy clinched the Antrim MFC Title with victory over St Gall's here.