Rival stars blossom in Newry hothouse
WHEN Cathal Murray's fourth-year PE class in St Colman's Newry split into two sides to play a basketball match last Wednesday, the inevitable happened.
The students immediately decided that one side would be Down, the other Armagh, and that the winner would foretell the result in tonight's big Ulster football clash.
"Armagh nicked it with the final score, a three-pointer," Murray relates with a chuckle.
Obsessive interest in tonight's derby is not surprising, given St Colman's geography and history. The school are the current (and back-to-back) holders of the Hogan Cup (the All-Ireland schools 'A' title) and its Violet Hill location sometimes attracts a bit of slagging from Armagh folk, who claim it is located on their side of Newry town.
But the famous Down nursery's position as the pre-eminent GAA school in the country right now is in no doubt. They were the first school since St Pat's Navan (2000-01) to do a two-in-a-row this year, and only St Jarlath's Tuam (with 12) have a better record than their eight Hogan Cup titles.
And while this year's victorious team featured five Down minors, including AFL-bound Caolan Mooney, eight of Colman's 34-strong panel were from Armagh.
Newry's location means that two of the town's schools are breeding grounds for the burgeoning Gaelic football stars of both of tonight's opponents.
Recent Armagh seniors like Diarmuid Marsden, Paul McGrane, Jarlath Burns, Benny Tierney and John Rafferty are all Colman's graduates. But their county contemporaries like Kieran McGeeney, Oisin McConville and the McEntee twins went to Newry's other big GAA school, Abbey CBS.
Tonight's game will pit several high-profile former Abbey team-mates against one another, and one of their teachers -- Dan Gordon -- is a Down senior.
When Abbey won the Ulster schools' blue riband in 2006, they were captained by Down's Kevin McKernan (Burren) and their vice-captain was rising Armagh star Kevin Dyas (Dromintee).
Both were captains of their respective county minor teams that summer and will likely line out at wing-back for their seniors today.
And in that 2006 MacRory Cup final, Abbey beat a St Louis Kilteel side that was captained by a certain Martin Clarke. Not long afterwards, Dyas and Clarke became team-mates at Australian Rules club Collingwood before they returned to resume their GAA careers last season.
That is the sort of close relations at schools level that makes any Armagh/Down football match extra special.
Tonight's game has certainly lent a special atmosphere around the corridors of St Colman's this week, even if Murray notes that tonight's Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona has been just as big a source of schoolboy chatter.
"You would always get a lot of banter here whenever Down and Armagh meet," he says. "The boys are all classmates, team-mates and friends, but when it comes to Down against Armagh they probably play with a bit of an extra edge."
Murray, Declan Mussen, Barry Kelly and Eamonn McEvoy have jointly managed St Colman's to their domination of schools football, but up until last summer they noticed one difference between themselves and their charges.
"Many of our students, particularly the youngest ones, have absolutely no memory at all of 1991 and '94," Murray says of the Mourne's most recent All-Ireland victories.
"Unlike someone like me they didn't have any recollection of the colour and excitement of those years around the county or have the sort of heroes that we grew up with.
"For many, last summer was the first time any of them experienced All-Ireland fever, but now even our first years have heroes they want to emulate and Down's success last summer has already had an impact."