St Brigid's relishing trip into the unknown
THE St Brigid's clubhouse swarms with activity. There's a live radio broadcast from their packed bar today, just over a week before their showdown with Crossmaglen.
Outside a shrill blast of a whistle sets a group of U-16s off on a training drill, while another group of men head off to add to the considerable bunting around Kiltoom and Cam. It's all hands to the pump.
At a corner of the bar, a group of players are huddled together. If there was an inoculation against the excitement that has been building steadily since their shock win over Nemo Rangers a few weeks ago, you sense they'd take it. But they look relaxed with only the odd bouncing knee betraying any sign of nerves.
"There was a bit of hysteria here in the club when we came back from the semi-final," recalls defender Ian Kilbride.
"The players didn't really want to get too involved in it. There were bonfires and beeping horns and the players were kind of cringing, thinking: 'There's nothing won yet'. Everyone is fairly focused on the task at hand. No one remembers second place."
They last faced Crossmalgen in the semi-final of 2007, but that should have little bearing on today's fixture. The Armagh kingpins will hand starts to, at most, half a dozen of that team, while St Brigid's will probably only field three from that clash.
The Roscommon side prepared diligently for the 2007 meeting, but prepared with a view to taking on the Armagh men at their own game in the somewhat narrow confines of Mullingar. Like almost everyone else, they paid the price.
"As much as you think you are ready for an All-Ireland semi-final, I think we went in hoping we would win rather than believing we would," Kilbride continues.
"We put in the work over that winter thinking: 'These are big boys we need to get the weights work in' and we were slogging out on the back pitch, but I don't think there was a full belief there. We conceded an early goal and that shattered us.
"Going into this semi-final there was more belief in the team. We were thinking that if we don't do it now, we never will. We believe it's in our hands now, as opposed to the previous attitude which was 'if we do as much as we can, we might get a result.' There is definitely more belief this time.
"A lot of our young lads have a winning mentality. They are confident as hell and have achieved a lot in their careers to date, so I don't see it being too daunting for them."
Preparation this time around has included a visit from comedian Tommy Tiernan, a cousin of squad member John Tiernan and a trip to Croke Park to give their players a feel for the place.
"Croke Park can overawe you, no doubt about it. It is a huge stadium. Even the sounds are different and there can be a complete lack of wind at one end. That takes some getting used to. Crossmaglen are more used to it that we are, but once we get there and get focused we'll know that the occasion is for the supporters and the game is for us. We need to get the job done."
Perhaps their greatest motivation comes from their biggest rivals. It was Clann na nGael's misfortune to lose five club finals, including four-in-a-row from 1987 to 1990. At that stage, the Johnstown men were all conquering and St Brigid's were often on the receiving end.
"It definitely spurred us on watching them, not that they helped us!" Kilbride jokes.
"When we first moved here in 1993, my auld lad became the manager of the club and they were getting absolutely trounced by Clann. They won a 'B' championship and that's the level the team were at then. They were getting hammered by Clann by 20-25 points."
John O'Mahony helped the club to a first senior title in over 30 years in 1997 and trophies arrived with some regularity after that, not least when they strung eight U-21 titles in a row up until 2009, a record that even Crossmaglen would have taken notice of.
The journey of a thousand miles started with a defeat to Castlerea in their first round of the county championship last summer. From there, turning March 17 in Croke Park into 'St Brigid's Day' must have seemed a million miles away.
"Crossmaglen have the same sort of history and tradition that Nemo have," Kilbride concluded. "We're going in with no tradition and no history.
"This is unchartered territory for us."