About four o’clock on Sunday evening Eamonn Sheridan received a text to say second placed St Catherine’s had defeated Cappry Rovers thanks to two Conor Blaine goals.
Sheridan was sitting in the Convoy Arsenal dressing room after his Rathmullan Celtic side, the league leaders in the Milford Inn Division One, had hammered the table-croppers 7-0.
The win meant Rathmullan maintained a two-point advantage over the Killybegs team, with two games in hand, but more crucially the St Catherine’s win had dissolved the chances of third-placed Cappry Rovers.
When all the beans were counted Sheridan and his joint-managers Dessie McLaughlin and Mark Curran congratulated their team on obtaining promotion.
“Eamonn got word and passed on the news,” Curran says. “We, the management, were aware of the situation, as we Eamonn and Paddy Sheridan but that was it.
“Nobody else even thought of it. There wasn’t much in the way of celebration though, no jumping about and all the lads did was head for the soup and then down the road home.
“At the start of the season we set two aims. First of all we wanted to get promoted and then, if we managed that, the goal would switch to winning the championship. So that’s where we are at right now.”
Rathmullan are now back in the Brian McCormick Premier Division after a couple of memorable seasons. For a side who had never won a league title of any sort, four points from their final four fixtures will lead to a second in as many years. For a team who stood patiently at the shelter, they now have a choice of buses.
St Catherine’s, managed by Brian Dorrian, are the only side who can pip Rathmullan to the title and the top two meet on Sunday week at Flagpole Park - the Seasiders versus the Fishermen. Before that, St Catherine’s have a free weekend, while Rathmullan are away to Cappry Rovers this Sunday.
“Of all the teams we have played this season St Catherine’s have certainly been the strongest,” Curran adds. “We pride ourselves on the level of professionalism we show and we’re usually out at five past one warming up before a 2pm kick-off. Only once this season have we come out of the dressing room to see another team on the pitch before us and that was away in Killybegs in November.”
That particular afternoon, though, it was Rathmullan who left Emerald Park with the points after Darragh Patton and Aaron McClafferty nicked a 2-1 win late in the day. In fact, the concession that afternoon, when Daniel Breslin scored, was the last time Rathmullan’s sheets have been dirtied.
Since then they’ve amassed 13 points from 15 - a 1-0 win at Gweedore United, the 3-0 victory against Dunlewey Celtic, a scoreless draw against Donegal Town, an important 2-0 defeat of Arranmore before Convoy were blitzed.
“We were strong last season at the back but that’s probably the area in which we’ve improved on this year,” Curran says. “We’ve only let in eight this season in 14 games and with the likes of Darragh Patton, who had 17 goals this season and is on his way to the Golden Boot, while Eamonn Sheridan has 11. We signed a young lad from Glasgow, 18-year-old Ryan Connolly, whose father is from Rathmullan, and he’s been exceptional.”
Although the current season has yet to reach its apex, Curran knows next term will be even tougher. Neighbours Milford United gave them an eye-opener only a fornight ago in the Ulster Cup semi-final.
Rathmullan dominated the game, led in the last minute thanks to Patton’s goal, only for Milford level in the last minute through Peter Doherty before the player-manager won it in extra-time for the Premier Division team.
“We played well against Milford and limited them to very few chances and then, out of nothing they scored in the last minute,” Curran laments. “In extra-time they won the game and deservedly so but it certainly worked to keep our feet on the ground.
“Next year I think every game will be like that, essentially a cup final as there are experienced teams in that Premier Division, who have all won the league recently - Kilmacrennan Celtic, Glenea Unitea, Gweedore United.
“I saw Milford in their couple of FAI Junior Cup games and the occasion they had against Pike Rovers was something else. It made me a little jealous but there was a great crowd and a lot of people involved in football in the county supporting them. That’s where we want to be, having big games that will get the whole town interested.”
Until Curran and his co-manager McLaughlin joined forces two years ago Rathmullan were essentially a snakes and ladders type of team. Sometimes one step forward was followed by two back and although there were always a number of fine players from the region, team successes were sporadic.
“We sat down a couple of years ago and decided if we were going to do anything with Rathmullan then we were going to do it right,” Curran says. “Dessie and I got working together and he brought fresh ideas, discipline and experience. We also have Joey McElwee on the line, he’s a former player and manager who has been at the club for over 20 years.
“Off-the-pitch, there’s Noel McCormick, Enda McElhinney and Alan Todd - the chairman, secretary and treasurer, who have been great with us. Any time we need anything done with the pitch, gear, transport or whatever, they have it organised. It’s a team effort.
“When we all sat down a couple of years ago we hoped to bring Rathmullan to where we thought they belonged, back in the Premier Division, and we’ve managed it. It’s great of course but for now it’s all about winning the league and it’s in our own hands.”