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Freedom of Expression at Memorable Ulster U21 Tournament

Peter Teague's lifting of the Paddy McLarnon Cup brought to a close the 2019 Bank of Ireland Ulster U21 Football Tournament, with Dromore teammates Emmett McNabb and Andrew McGrath standing beside him on the balcony as Final Man of the Match and Tournament Top Scorer respectively.

This year saw the 10th anniversary of the Tournament and the third title for a Tyrone team since its inception in 2010, St Enda's Omagh (2012) and Clonoe O'Rahilly's (2014) the predecessors to St Dympna's victory on Sunday.

Derry and Down also hold three titles, Watty Graham's Glen (2015, 2016, 2017) claiming all three for the Oakleaf county, while Burren (2010, 2011) and Bryansford (2013) fly the flag of victory for the Mourne men. Last year's champions Gaoth Dobhair are the only other winners, taking the title to Donegal and springboarding their Senior success later in the season.

With the canvas blank at the turn of the year, there was a twist in the 2019 tale, when Carrick Emmett's withdrawal meant that only eight teams had the chance to weave the Tournament's rich tapestry. But weave they did, and we'll have a look at some of the highlights from this year.

Score of the Tournament
James Smith had a fine game in the Quarter-Final, but Shane McVeety of Crosserlough gets our nod for Score of the Tournament.

Shane McVeety - St Brigid's (Aontroim) v Crosserlough (An Cabhán) - Quarter-Final

There were of course many contenders for this particular accolade.

Magherafelt scored seven goals in their two games, and Michael Lynch's effort in the Quarter-Final against Enniskillen, when the whole full-forward line combined in devastating fashion, is high on the list.

Daniel Guinness' decisive Semi-Final point for Carryduff against rivals St Brigid's that was dramatically disallowed and then reinstated is in the conversation through sheer drama and importance, while Declan Martin's goal for O'Donovan Rossa against Dromore in their Semi-Final also oozed class.

Dromore's Emmett McNabb slalomed his way through the Clann Éireann defence in their Quarter-Final, throwing two dummies and fitting in a one-two before curling the ball between the posts, an example of the eye-wateringly high standard of scores at this year's tournament.

However, my Score of the Tournament came in the St Brigid's v Crosserlough Quarter-Final. Even with the game beyond the Breffni side, and with three Biddies hanging off him, Crosserlough half-forward Shane McVeety found enough space to unleash a thunderbolt from his left foot, the ball swerving beautifully into the top corner of the Belfast side's net.

Performance of the Tournament
Early goalscorer Michael McEvoy takes a sideline as Magherafelt blow Enniskillen Gaels away in the Quarter-Final.

O'Donovan Rossa Magherafelt (Doire) v Enniskillen Gaels (Fear Manach) - Quarter-Final

Dromore's controlled and systematic demolition of Clann Éireann was very much in the conversation for this accolade, as Declan McNulty carried the ball forward to create chance after chance for the energetic St Dympna's target men, Emmett McNabb and Andrew McGrath finding the scores that underlined their defensive solidity.

Clann Éireann's ability to step up with a match-winning score against St Eunan's in the Preliminary Round saw them in with a shout, as well as the sparkling display of attacking football produced by both St Brigid's and Carryduff in their Semi-Final, but there was one display that stood out for its ruthless devastation.

Within mere seconds of the throw-in, Michael McEvoy had fired Magherafelt into the lead against a fancied Enniskillen Gaels side when they met in the Quarter-Final. By the 11th minute the Derry men had rattled the net three times and led by an astounding twelve points.

Their rich vein of scoring form continued as they finished the game with 6-07, each goal having a different scorer, with corner back Paddy McLarnon getting forward for a late goal to emphasise the victory.

Game of the Tournament
An enthralling game from start to finish as rivals St Brigid's and Carryduff went toe-to-toe.

St Brigid's (Aontroim) v Carryduff GAC (An Dún) - Semi-Final

There were excited voices in the press area when St Brigid's sealed their Quarter-Final victory over Crosserlough to set up a clash with their local rivals Carryduff in the Semi-Final.

Although hailing from different counties, the close proximity of Carryduff to south Belfast meant that these two clubs were intertwined off the pitch. Many of the players had played on the same school team at Our Lady and St Patrick's Knock and were good friends away from the green rectangle.

From the moment the ball was thrown in, both teams threw caution to the proverbial wind, attacking with gay abandon and defending with controlled tenacity.

St Brigid's raced into an early lead, but the Down champions remained calm and kicked their way back into the game, Josh Connery gliding his way through, throwing dummies like confetti at a wedding before crashing the ball to the net.

Back came the Saffron side again, two second half goals and a huge James Smith effort seeing them drawing level in the 58th minute, before that late Daniel Guinness effort broke the hearts of the BT9 side.

A game that left all who witnessed it exhilarated.

Player of the Tournament

Declan McNulty - St Dympna's Dromore

This year's competition was littered with superb individual performances.

Peter Webb's creativity and clinical eye were crucial in their Quarter-Final victory over Crosserlough, while in the same game James Smith's accuracy also stood out.

When Magherafelt swept away Enniskillen Gaels, they were served well by Declan Martin, Cormac Murphy and Paddy McLarnon, with the corner-back picking up our Man of the Match award for his direct running and contribution to the attack in a game where his defensive duties were not overly stressed.

Dromore's Emmett McNabb picked up two Bank of Ireland Man of the Match awards, catching the eye of all assembled with his non-stop energy and pinpoint finishing, while teammate Andrew McGrath had a real eye for goal and finished the Tournament's top scorer.

Ryan McCusker also turned in a fine display in the Semi-Final against Rossa, picking up our Man of the Match award as he drove his side forward from centre-back, while Ronan Beatty and Daniel Guinness also stood out in the Game of the Tournament against St Brigid's.

The winner though is St Dympna's Declan McNulty. The industrious half-forward picked up our Man of the Match award in the victory over Clann Éireann, his ability to drop deep and instigate attacks matched by his ability to take his score when the opportunity presented itself.

McNulty continued his solid form throughout the competition, tirelessly roving around and quietly dictating his team's attacks, marshalling the ball into the hands of their devastating score takers.

Consistent Performer of the Tournament

The Loughshore breeze - Kickham's Creggan

Always unerring in her strength and effort, the wind invariably blew towards the Pavilion, giving anyone who was playing in that direction an immediate advantage.

The breeze whipped along the light snow, heavy rain, and cut through the early Spring sunshine to keep all assembled on the balcony on their toes.

She'll be back next year. Whoever can harness her powerful elements will win the day.

Moment of the Tournament
The picturesque Kickham's Creggan where the Tournament takes place.

"The BT9 Skinny Latté Derby" - Sean McAuley - Kickham's Creggan

When the Definitive Encyclopedia of Antrim GAA characters is written, Sean McAuley deserves a centrefold spot.

A man who tirelessly made sure all changes were relayed to the assembled media, who welcomed everyone to the club with a smile and a chat, and who bat not an eyelid at listing every photographer and reporter covering the games, he excelled himself at the Semi-Final stage.

In the week preceding the final four clash, media scribes had mulled over the similar demographic profile of St Brigid's and Carryduff as a talking point. I personally went for the 'cross-Lagan' derby, but it was a similarity hinted at rather than pointed out. Not so for Sean.

Taking the microphone for the pre-match introduction, he cleared his throat.

"I'd like to welcome everyone to Kickham's Creggan for today's clash between St Brigid's and Carryduff, known in some circles as the BT9 Skinny Latté derby."

A murmur of recognition/discontent (delete as appropriate) rippled around the Loughshore, but rather than a Skinny Latté, both teams served up a double espresso of attacking football that more than kept us awake.

A fantastically run tournament by Kickham's Creggan and I am already looking forward to next year's competition.

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