By Damian Dolan
It’s the ‘Battle of The Macs’ at McGovern Park on Sunday (2:30pm) as Sean McDermotts and Thomas McCurtains face off for a place in the All-Britain final.
It’s a tie which immediately summons memories of their semi-final meeting two years ago at Ruislip – the Birmingham side coming out on top by 2-11 to 1-12.
McDermotts led by five points going into the final minute, only for Mark McGirr’s goal to set up a barnstorming finish, but the Warwickshire champions held on. Conal Dowling’s two first half goals proving crucial.
Niall Coffey scored 0-8 (3f) and Conor Murphy two points for McCurtains, and both are still very much involved. Other survivors include Paddy Halligan, John Winters, Richard Ellis, Kevin Delahunty, Tommy Clarke, Patrick O’Neill and goalkeeper Conor Mulrennan.
But they’ll be no McGirr on Sunday – he recently returned to Ireland to join the Army.
Likewise, McDermotts have plenty of veterans of their own from that afternoon in November 2017, in the likes of goalkeeper Conal Dowling, Macauley Felgate, Liam Gilbride, Niall Gilbride, Ciaran Folan, Andy Willis, and now player-manager Anthony Moriarty.
Back in 2017, McCurtains had just won the London junior championship, and then a play-off, to earn their place in the All-Britain. This time they’re intermediate champions and a far more experienced outfit than the one McDermotts encountered last time.
They’ll go into Sunday confident, especially on the back of their thrilling semi-final win (2-13 to 3-8) over Lancashire champions Oisin at Pairc na hEireann.
Two first half goals from London county player Coffey, including one from the penalty spot, gave the Londoners a three-point half-time lead.
But in the end they needed injury-time scores from Coffey (free) and Johnny McGuigan to win it, after Oisin scored a last-minute equalising penalty of their own.
“The penalty coming so late really tested us, but the guys showed great composure to work the ball up the field and take the score when it came,” McCurtains manager Pop Geraghty told the Irish World.
For the Manchester club it was a disappointing third quarter-final exit in a row, but any win over the champions of Lancashire is a good one, given the county’s track record in the All-Britain.
So McCurtains will take huge heart, not just from the victory but the manner of it.
The east Londoners earned their place in the All-Britain on the back of edging Tir Chonaill Gaels’ homegrown team in the intermediate London final, and then seeing off junior champions Dulwich Harps in a play-off.
Geraghty puts the club’s recent success down to the likes of Jim Hyland and Gavin Gallagher, as well as real clubmen like Alan Power, Johnny Dwyer, Jim McDermott and Tom Watson.
McCurtains celebrate their 100th year in 2020, and while they’ve already achieved their goal – promotion to senior and staying in League Division 1 – there’s a huge carrot now before them.
They have the chance to cap an already memorable year by becoming the first London All-Britain winners since Fulham Irish in 2006.
Since then, Neasden Gaels (2018), North London Shamrocks (2014, Tara (2008) and McCurtains themselves in 2007, have all reached the final, only to fall at the final hurdle.
For McCurtains, this is now “bonus territory” and while it’s already been a very long year, the opportunity to keep their season going a little while longer is “spurring” the east Londoners on, says Geraghty.
“It’s a tough time of year to still be going at it, the pitches are heavy, but it’s a real bonus for us and we’re enjoying it going into our 100th year,” he said.
Geraghty added: “They’re (Sean McDermotts) a very experienced side in this competition and that showed against us to years ago.
“They’ve marquee players like Niall Gilbride and Conal Dowling. They had a good win over Hugh O’Neills and they’re probably coming in a bit fresher than us.
“It’s going to be a tough, tough challenge, but it’s one we’re looking forward to.”
McDermotts had a far smoother passage into the last four – easing past Yorkshire champions Hugh O’Neills by 2-13 to 0-5. Chris Hayden’s two goals – his first from their opening attack – setting the Birmingham side on the path to victory.
Perennial provincial bridesmaids, the last of the club’s four All-Britain titles came in 1988. Since then it’s been a tale of final heartache.
Runners up in 2017, McDermotts were also beaten finalists in 2015, 2010, 2003, 2002, 2000, 1999, 1998 and 1995. The provincial title has become the Warwickshire club’s Holy Grail.
“It’s proven a difficult competition to get over the line with,” player-manager Anthony Moriarty told the Irish World.
“It’s the one that everyone wants – we want to get over that line, but we’ve always fallen that bit short. That final hurdle is always a step too far.”
The Birmingham side bowed out of last year’s provincial championship on the back of a 1-14 to 0-9 defeat to Dunedin Connolly’s, who went on to claim their third title in a row.
But Connolly’s failed to make it out of Scotland this year, and that’s opened the door for contenders to their provincial crown.
McDermotts may well feel that this is their time, and no one else left in the competition can match their recent experience in the All-Britain, having this year made it six Warwickshire titles in a row.
But they came close to suffering a similar fate as Connolly’s, as Coventry’s Roger Casements pushed them all the way. McDermotts prevailing by 3-5 to 1-10 thanks to a gusty second half display, having lost John Dowling to a first half red card.
Game management and past county final experience “got them over the line”, says Moriarty.
McDermotts goals came from James McDowell, Joe Owens and a Conal Dowling penalty.
The club has also back-boned the Warwickshire side which reached three provincial inter-county finals in a row – indeed, the likes of Niall Gilbride, Joe Owens, Joel Powney, Conal Dowling and Michael Mannion all played in Warwickshire’s win over London at McGovern Park in June.
McDermotts may be rich in ‘final’ experience, but this is still largely a young homegrown team. The average age is 23-24. They started 12 homegrown players against O’Neills, and had six more on the bench.
“Our priority at the start of the year is to win the county, with one eye on the All-Britain,” said Moriarty, who has been involved with McDermotts for 15 years.
Sunday, though, will be just his fourth game in charge since taking over the reins.
He added: “But it’s a long year and it’s difficult to get the fellas to commit all year to push on for that All Britain, which is probably why we always fall short of bringing it home.”
Moriarty was on the pitch two years ago at Ruislip. It was “nip and tuck” he recalls, and McDermotts “did well to get out of there with the win.”
He’s expecting nothing different on Sunday.