Antrim side Naomh Éanna sealed a first Ulster IFC title for the county last season and as Galbally Pearse’s set their sights on the 2019 title on Saturday evening against Magheracloone, there will be another Saffron guarding the six-yard box.
Back in 2010 when the Pearse’s were suffering relegation from senior football in Tyrone, a young Liam Óg McAuley first popped his head round the door of the Murphy family homestead in Galbally. The former Rossa clubman would go on to marry their daughter Carla and begin a journey that will culminate at the Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening.
Although first appearing around south Tyrone at the beginning of the decade, it wasn’t until late 2017 that McAuley took the plunge and signed the transfer forms. He admits the transition from the urban to rural setting took some getting used to at first.
“There was some bedding in to do. It’s different from Belfast where there are so many distractions. You might not see people from week to week, whereas down here you’re meeting people every day when you go to the shop or people going round the doors selling club lotto.”
“You’re seeing people in your local community and all they want to talk about is football, which can only be a good thing because there are too many distractions in the city and too many kids lost between minor and senior level.”
“Still in the back of your mind you sort of feel people are thinking – he’s a blow-in, what does it really mean to him? - but when you buy into something and you’re living in the community, you’re just eating, sleeping and breathing football.”
Despite that feeling of being something of an outsider, McAuley insists it didn’t take him too long to settle into life in the country.
“Transition wise, I’m outgoing and love a laugh, a joke and a bit of banter,” he smirks, “so that helped fitting in with the boys and because I’ve been down here since 2010-11 with Carla it was made easy enough.”
The Galbally goalkeeper is a busy man and is also contracted to Carrick Rangers in the NIFL Danske Bank Premiership. Pearse’s extended championship run has limited his input in the soccer season so far, but McAuley insists the east Antrim club have been very accommodating.
“Carrick have been very supportive. Social media here means people see stuff and they realise what it’s all about, especially when they see family pictures and all.”
“Niall (Currie) signed me five years ago from Donegal Celtic and when I signed it actually said that Liam will continue to balance his GAA life with soccer, so Niall’s always been supportive and if I need time off to go and play Gaelic it’s never a problem.”
“Even the stewards at Carrick got involved. When I was warming up one night one of them turned around and said ‘Here well done Liam on winning the championship.’ You don’t really expect it but it’s nice when it happens.”
“On the football side, you’re working with a goalkeeping coach there too, especially throughout the winter and it keeps you sharp.”
Competing in two sports is nothing new for McAuley. O’Donovan Rossa one of many clubs in Belfast and Antrim that participate proudly in multiple codes, with both their hurling and football teams playing at Senior level in the county.
Liam admits that moving to a one-code club has been a real eye-opener and brought the endless balancing act of the dual club into sharp focus.
“I’m obviously coming from a dual background and now that I’ve stepped away from that, it has only highlighted for me how much pressure dual clubs in Antrim are under and I think something really needs to be done to help dual clubs.”
“In Rossa there would have been an overlap of maybe 15, 16 players between the two squads and the way the fixtures get fired. You could sometimes be playing Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday Wednesday and because of that you might only have 5 or 6 players at football or hurling training. That’s not benefitting them either.”
Without the added pressure of competing on two fronts, Galbally – like many Tyrone clubs – have the luxury of giving their manager a selection headache.
“The hardest problem for the manager at the minute is picking a squad of 30 to fill out the programme because there are men breathing down each other’s necks. When I came to Tyrone we had 40,41 men out training between senior and reserve. It’s paid dividends because you’ve only one code and 40 players.”
“Every night you go to training and it is cutthroat – if you’re not performing at the level here, there will be someone standing to take your place.”
McAuley had a hugely successful underage career. He captained Rossa to an U21 title, won All-Ireland colleges titles and represented Antrim from U16 to U21, but the Tyrone IFC title was his first at senior level.
“To win my first senior title at the age of 30 – it was my 30th birthday the day we won the county final – would definitely have to rank up there. When you see how much that title meant to people down here it’s incredible.”
“We came back here, went to Paddy Tally’s bar and then up the road in a tractor and trailer to the community centre and there were over 600 people standing waiting on us, kids and all, they had a whole homecoming for us.”
With the high-octane games coming thick and fast, Galbally were only able to celebrate their historic Tyrone title for two days before turning their attention to fighting for the league title. The extra games were great for momentum but the squad has welcomed their first two-week break since winning the county title and are well-rested and prepared for Magheracloone.
“Magheracloone were in a senior final against Scotstown a few years ago so we know it’s not going to be easy but we’d be confident. We’ll give them the respect that they’re due because they’re in an Ulster final the same as ourselves but certainly we’re not going on Saturday night to make the numbers up.”
“There’s one thing down here and you have to give credit to the management team, is that no one gets above their station. We know the position we’re in and we know the job that we have to do. The management team have everything in place for us.”
Goalkeepers have a reputation for being the men who put the fire out, but a photo that appeared on Facebook in the days after the county final painted a different picture of McAuley’s more colourful style. He laughs as he explains how it transpired.
“Carla’s brother Ciaran that makes the gloves – Murphy’s Gaelic Gloves – had got a flag made saying County Intermediate Champions. Then when the photo was being taken, Carla’s nephew handed me a flare. One of Carla’s family members had ordered them online.”
“As a Belfast man we get slegged for starting fires anyway so I thought I’d open it up and see what it was all about!”
Plumes of coloured smoke appear to be 2019’s must-have accessory for county finals, as well as being a photographer’s dream. This weekend they may surface again to add to what McAuley enthuses is an already vociferous Galbally support.
“The day of the county final I’ve never heard noise like it. Down here, the more you give to the community, they’ll give you it back twice. If they’ve something to buy into, they’ll back you all the way.”
“There will be plenty of noise and blue and white about the Athletic Grounds. Hopefully our year won’t end come Saturday night.”
Galbally Pearse’s take on Magheracloone Mitchell’s of Monaghan in the Ulster IFC Final in Armagh on Saturday night with throw-in at 7:oopm.