By Martin Mannering
The students of John Moores University’s Gaelic football team have had added focus in recent weeks – the thought of winning an All-Ireland title.
On Friday, the British University champions travel to Dublin to contest the Corn na Mac Leann Cup, and their date with destiny.
They face Southern Regional College in the semi-finals at Dublin City University Sportsgrounds (2:30pm). New York take on Cavan Institute in the other semi.
The final, and the Shield Final, take place on Saturday.
In recent years the Liverpool side have had to watch on as their fierce rivals across town, Hope University, reaped the accolades as they made history in winning back-to-back All-Ireland titles.
However, Hope’s three-in-a-row hopes were dashed by Moore’s in Greenbank Park in December, and now is the opportunity the blue and gold have been craving for some time.
“What our arch-rivals (Hope Uni) achieved over the past two years was superb and we want our name alongside them on the trophy,” John Moores manager Ciaran McGilligan told the Irish World.
“I have every confidence that the lads can do it as we have an excellent squad of talented and committed players. So bring it on.”
If John Moores are feeling any pressure from Hope’s recent success, it certainly isn’t showing.
“All that matters is ourselves and to keep the focus on the game in hand. We’ve prepared well and I know the lads will deliver,” said McGilligan.
John Moores will, however, endeavour to emulate that success, having endured some near misses in both Britain and the All-Ireland in the past.
Most notably in 2007, when the club reached the Trench Cup final, only to be edged out by St Patrick’s Drumcondra 0-13 to 0-12.
McGilligan has been involved with the University GAA club for the past seven years – four of those as a player and three as manager.
Heading into Corn na Mac Leann, there’s a determination to make up for lost time.
“During that time we have come agonisingly close on numerous occasions, but either slipped at the final hurdle or been denied by a change in the rules,” said McGilligan.
“In 2014 we won the British Championship but it had already been decided that the League winners would represent Britain that year.
“Last year, due to sustained adverse weather the final could not be played and as defending champions Hope were nominated. Rightfully so.
“So it’s a terrific feeling to finally get the chance to take on the best of our division in Ireland.”
— University GAA (@UniversityGAA) December 7, 2019
The pride of achievement so far, and a determination to match the achievements of their rivals, is palpable in the voice of the affable young Derry man, who works as a Primary school teacher in Liverpool.
When Moores arrive in Dublin they will certainly not be short of experience of nail-biting finishes.
They certainly earned their place in the Corn na Mac Leann the hard way, having gone the distance in every game.
A narrow quarter-final victory over their other neighbours, University of Liverpool, set them on the road and momentum took hold from there.
The long trip to Glasgow to face RGU in the semi-final was fraught with danger, and a titanic contest was only settled in stoppage time when star forward Danny Magill hit the winning point.
It was even tighter in the final where they again faced their great adversaries in the mud at Greenbank.
Congratulations to @LjmuGaa who saw off @hopegaa1 after ET in a titanic Corn Na Mac Leinn qualifier final. Final score 2-08 to 0-10 and @LjmuGaa will represent British universities in the Corn Na Mac Leinn in Ireland next February @BPCGAA @lancsGAAofficia #unigaa #gaa
— University GAA (@UniversityGAA) December 7, 2019
McGilligan watched his side relinquish a three-point lead in the last five minutes to bring extra-time, but he recalls not being overly fazed.
Magill hit 1-1 in extra-time put Hope to bed.
“We knew that we had let it slip but remained convinced that we were the better side, and we regrouped to nail down the tie convincingly (2-8 to 0-10),” he said.
“We enjoyed our win and Christmas with our families, but have been fully focused on February and the challenges that await in Dublin.”
They have strength in depth, but they also have some outstanding individuals. Rossa McCartan, son of Down legend Gregory, and Danny Magill, son of another Down star, Michael, are two of the stand-out players on the side.
🏆 Updated @ElectricIreland HE GAA Championships fixtures
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— GAA Higher Education (@HigherEdGAA) February 5, 2020
Prionsias Burke and Conor Cullen form a formidable midfield partnership, and Tiernan Canavan is always to the fore.
McCartan is a solid centre back with a gift for making telling runs into opposition territory, while Magill is an ever-present danger with his speed of mind and foot in front of goal.
McGilligan will have a fully fit squad to pick from this weekend. If they make it through Friday’s semi-final, the final is 24 hours later.
However the weekend pans out for McGilligan and his troops they will certainly not fail for a lack of preparation or dedication.