Ulster Club SFC: Clann Eireann’s Barry McCambridge ready for the ‘unknown’ as Creggan battle looms
|Venue: Corrigan Park, Belfast Date: Sunday, 5 December Throw-in: 13:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Match report and match highlights online|
The final whistle at the Athletic Grounds sent Barry McCambridge into a state of shock.
Clann Eireann were the kings of Armagh football once again, but McCambridge didn’t know quite how to react.
In a moment of unspoken euphoria, he locked eyes with Sean McCarthy, one of the players who had accompanied him during their rise through the club’s underage ranks.
“It didn’t really hit me after the game,” admits McCambridge.
“My dad showed me a video of myself and Sean McCarthy just staring at each other, we didn’t know what to do. We were in shock for that long.”
It took a while, but eventually it did sink in. For the first time since 1963, Clann Eireann had ascended to the pinnacle of Armagh football after beating Crossmaglen Rangers in a dramatic, nerve-shredding decider that went down to the wire and sparked jubilant scenes in Lurgan.
“We drove back to our pitch,” recalls 22-year-old McCambridge, who made his senior debut for the club at the age of 16.
“There were Clann Eireann flags everywhere and it hit me, what we did and how much it means to everyone.”
They nearly didn’t do it, of course. Smarting from losing last year’s final to Maghery, Cross were determined to see it over the line, and charged into a six-point lead early in the second half, only for the Lurgan men to rein Rangers in with Ruairi McDonald smashing home a brilliant goal before Jack Conlon’s long-range punt deceived Tiarnan McConville on its way into the net via the post.
A Rian O’Neill score for Cross on the cusp of injury-time levelled matters, but Conor Turbitt stepped up for Clann Eireann, sending two kicks between the posts to realise a Clann dream 58 years in the making.
Going six points down to Cross in a county final would usually spell the end for most teams, but not Clann. Not this year.
While from the outside looking in it appeared as though the Cross game was slipping through their grasp, McCambridge insists Clann Eireann’s perseverance and handy knack for digging out results is a product of their graft on the training pitch and in the gym over the last year.
“There are times when you might have a tiny bit of doubt [about it slipping away], but the way we finished all our games, like Maghery or Ballymacnab or the Cross game, the last 15 we’ve come out flying,” he said ahead of Sunday’s Ulster Club quarter-final with Antrim champions Creggan at Corrigan Park, a debut in the senior provincial series for both clubs.
“It’s really helped us. We’ve been training very hard this year and the fitness levels have been crazy for all the boys, so we know that we have that impact off the bench as well to help us get over the line.
“But nobody really panicked. You could tell from the game, we obviously got a bit of luck for one of the goals, but we were always there, flying towards the end. They were able to bring it back level but we managed to get up the pitch and get two good scores to finish it off.
“We’ve a really tight-knit group. Over lockdown, everyone was training flat-out because we know the competition within the team, everyone wants to push for a starting spot. We have 30 players pushing each other as hard as they can in training, and that’s only going to improve us.”
Ulster Club the ‘unknown’ for both teams
McCambridge, who is studying sports science at Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus, talks about the “tight-knit” nature of the Clann panel more than once during our conversation.
Indeed, seven of his Under-10s team-mates were in the squad for the Cross game: Conor Turbitt, Conor McConville, Eoghan Mulholland, Conan O’Carroll, Sean McCarthy, Aodhan McConville and Ruairi McConville (another two – Rioghan Meehan and Ryan Owens – were injured).
And McCambridge knows that Clann Eireann need to utilise that acute knowledge of each other and ensure that everyone operates at optimum efficiency to overcome a Creggan side riding a similar euphoric wave having conquered Antrim for the first time in 67 years.
“We’ve watched a few videos of Creggan, but there’s only so much you can see in a video,” admits McCambridge, whose uncles Conor, Michael and Ciaran and cousin Ryan represented Antrim in hurling.
“Until you get there, you don’t know what’s going to happen or what they’re going to bring to the game, but if you’re winning the county championship and beating teams like Cargin and Aghagallon, you’re going to be a good side, and you can see they’re a big, physical team.
“But the likes of Maghery and Ballymacnab, they’re big sides as well, but you enjoy those types of games.
“But look, we’ve got a game and want to win, we’re going to give it everything and see what happens, hopefully we can get across the line.”
On playing in a senior Ulster club series for the first time, the Armagh player added: “We have underage provincial experience – I’ve played Paul McGirr (Ulster U16 Club Champions Tournament) and the year below me won the Paul McGirr, but it’s obviously different when you come to senior.
“The more you win, the more confidence you’re going to have, but it [Ulster Club SFC] is still the unknown, and we know we’re playing a very good side.”