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Club ties that bind

Errigal Ciaran’s manager stepped aside rather than face his own club Ballinderry, before a trainer from the Derry club left them because he is the uncle of two Errigal players. Declan Bogue explains the tangled web which sets the backdrop to tomorrow’s Ulster championship clash

SHORTLY after he led Errigal Ciaran to their first Tyrone championship in six years, Ronan McGuckin faced a dilemma.

Errigal were out against Mullahoran in the Ulster club preliminary round, and the delay on the Derry final meant a fixtures clash. McGuckin revealed that in the past 21 years, he had missed only one Ballinderry championship game. He was hospitalised with a virus.

"This is a wrench for me to be missing that game," he said at the time. "I thought that all the stars were lining up for me and I was going to get to see the game. But such is life I suppose, and I'm just hoping for good news when I come off the pitch regarding Ballinderry."

As soon as he stepped off the pitch, he heard good news and had to break some bad news of his own. He handed the reins over to team trainer Tommy McDermott. Couldn't manage a side against his beloved Shamrocks. Back in the winter, he spelt out that scenario to Errigal chairman Cathal McAnenly before committing to the job.

Now it was a reality.

It came as a shock to some people of Errigal Ciaran. Conleith Gilligan, the conductor of the Ballinderry attack, understands their hurt.

"Ronan played with a lot of us and it came as a shock when we heard he wasn't going to be with them for this game," he says.

"No matter what Ronan would have chosen to do, as players who played with him for 10 or 12 years, and as friends we would have backed him whatever he decided to do. And look, he couldn't manage against his own team."

McGuckin was already an established figure on the Shamrocks side when Gilligan took his first steps in senior football. Together, they won county titles, Ulster titles, All-Ireland titles. They married two sisters and Gilligan has "the utmost of respect for him in every sense."

Their bond goes beyond football.

There is talk that McGuckin should have just gone ahead, complete the job he was sent to do. Those people just don't "get" what football means to people in that little corner of the Loughshore.

To avoid an awkward moment, Gilligan hasn't spoken to McGuckin in the past couple of weeks. Not one word. He also bristles at the suggestion from some quarters that the Errigal manager on temporary leave should provide any inside information to the Shamrocks.

"If anybody knows Ronan, they would know that is not how he operates. He would be very professional in anything he does. If anyone wants to believe that, they are only a fool," says Gilligan.

"Nor would anybody in Ballinderry expect that to be the case. That's not the way a McGuckin would operate at all."

In light of the comings and goings, this game has taken on a sub-text and a drama. Another of the dramatis personae to leave the stage was Ballinderry's trainer Joe Canavan. An uncle of Tommy and Darren Canavan, he found that, like McGuckin, this tie was just a bit too close to home.

Easy as it is to forget, it is just another game of football, albeit Ulster club football.

Eleven years ago, Gilligan was part of the Ballinderry side that avenged their previous two consecutive Derry final defeats to beat Bellaghy.

The example of Crossmaglen spurred them to aim higher than just a county title.

"Everybody saw a team from Armagh going and doing well. I suppose everybody then reset their goals to get out of their own county and aim for something more than they had previously," says Gilligan.

Still, they weren't really expecting an All-Ireland, as he recalls: "Winning the Derry championship, having lost the previous two finals, would have been probably enough. As the competition went on and we were winning games, we didn't look further than the next game. We might win that, and it was a bonus.

"All of a sudden, we were in a final and won it, it was an incredible time."

Beating the mighty Nemo Rangers was the high-water mark for the club. They never reached the pinnacle again, but can consider themselves exceptionally unlucky to live in the same era as Crossmaglen.

In 2008, they took them to a final replay and lost Enda Muldoon to a foot injury at work between the two games. Last year, they lost Martin Harney to a red card in the first half yet came back hard at Crossmaglen in the second half. As ever, Cross found a way to win.

If they both win their first-round games, we are in for another instalment of this great rivalry in the semi-final.

In order to get this far, Ballinderry keep wringing every last drop out of a gifted generation of players such as Gilligan, Mickey Conlan, Kevin McGuckin and Enda Muldoon.

Muldoon won his seventh Derry title in the final against Slaughtneil last month, having played in the 1995 final against Bellaghy.

For Gilligan and a host of others, it was their sixth time taking the John McLaughlin Cup back to the parish.

Over the years, the celebrations have evolved.

"Ah, it was very quiet," Gilligan reveals.

"We had a few beers I suppose, but a lot of players are married with children, and you can't really go too mad. There's always a school run to be done or an after-school club to be sorted out.

"As you get older it gets very hard to do anything other than the Monday duties."

The last time these two faced each other was in 2006, when an unfancied Errigal side tore into the Shamrocks from the beginning. Peter Canavan and Mark Harte shredded their defence, and they were caught by surprise.

They can't let that happen to them again. Not with the possibility of Cross on the other side.

That's the legacy of 2002. Always more days ahead, more silverware at stake.

Irish Independent