St Eunan’s carry the county flag into the lion’s den

“St Eunan’s first run of any significance in the competition can act as a yardstick for those who are coming through the ranks, and not as a dusting picture hanging in the O’Donnell Park clubhouse.

“St Eunan’s first run of any significance in the competition can act as a yardstick for those who are coming through the ranks, and not as a dusting picture hanging in the O’Donnell Park clubhouse.

“One door might have closed, but it should provide the inspiration to have another opened in the not too distant future and whether it is they, or indeed their Dr Maguire successors next season, Donegal must continue to evolve in the higher company.”

That was how The Donegal Democrat’s Alan Foley ended his report after watching St. Eunan’s go down by three points, 0-11 to 0-8 to Crossmaglen Rangers in their 2008 Ulster semi-final meeting in Brewster Park.

Four years on, and with just one other outing in provincial football - the following year, 2009 - and a four-point defeat by the Down champions Kilcoo, the O’Donnell Park boys are back in Ulster once again.

And the big question on everybody’s lips is, can newly crowned Donegal champions improve on 2008 and go one better than they did in that last four meeting with the Armagh standard bearers?

On Sunday, they get their opportunity when they once again face the mighty Crossmaglen albeit in a first round game, and albeit on Armagh territory, in the Morgan Athletic Grounds.

Four years on, and Crossmaglen are still the top dogs when it comes to club football and have added two more Ulster championships and are the reigning All- Ireland champions after beating Garycastle from Westmeath in a replay earlier this year.

In that 2008 meeting St. Eunan’s were more than a match for the Armagh champions for up to three quarters of the game before the wilted under the renowned Crossmaglen’s pressure game.

St Eunan’s were without their main tallisman up front, Brendan Devenney, who suffered a punctured lung against Clonoe, the Tyrone champions, in the first round on that occasion.

Yet, despite this, St Eunan’s led by four points after 20 minutes and were two in front 0-6 to 0-4, as they headed for the dressing room at half-time. Ross Wherity and Conall Dunne with two points each and Paddy McGowan and Rory Kavanagh one each were the St. Eunan’s marksmen in the opening half hour.

The tide turned in the second half, but even at that, it took Crossmaglen 10 minutes into the new half to hit the front before they pulled away in the final quarter.

“We were very naive when we met them last time and I feel we have come on as a team since that and learned a lot from that game,” said Eamon O’Boyle who was at the helm back in 2008 too, and now shares the management role with Michael McGeehin and Devenney.

“The one big thing that we would have learned is to never say die and to play until the final whistle and I think that stood to us on Sunday, against Naonh Conaill.

“We were on top for long periods in that game in 2008 and were something like four points up at one stage in the first half.

“But they hung in and reduced it to two before half-time and even though we still held our own in the opening few minutes of the second half.

“But they clawed their way back into the game with a few frees and once they hit the front they closed us down and ground out the result. And that is what all the top teams do and is something we have been working on all year.”

St. Eunan’s have 11 survivors from 2008 - Eddie Brennan, Damien McClafferty, Mark McGowan, Eamon Doherty, John Haran, Kevin Rafferty, Conall Dunne, Ross Wherity, Kieran Sharkey and Ciaran Greene - still available and are either permanent fixtures in the team or have been used regularily in the course of this year’s run to the club’s 13th Donegal championship.

Meanwhile, the rate of change at Crossmaglen has been much greater, only eight of the team that claimed the club’s 16th Armagh championship in 17 years last month were on board back in 2008.

Paul Hearty, Paul McKeon, Aaron Kernan, Daniel McKenna John Hanratty, Oisin McConville, Tony Kernan and Stephen Kernan are the Cross men that have stood the test of time.

Francie Bellew, John Donaldson and John McEntee are the big name players that have moved on. But the one significant addition to the Cross line-up is corner-forward Jamie Clarke, who hit Donegal for two goals in the first seven minutes of the now infamous 2010 championship qualifier meeting in St Patrick’s Park, in Crossmaglen.

Clarke, who is recognised as one the marquee forwards in the modern game and ace goal poacher scored two in this season’s 3-9 to 0-11 county final win over Pearse Og.

“We know what is facing us on Sunday and it is a tough opener,” O’Boyle continued.

“But we have trained hard. We are playing our seventh championship games in seven weeks, we are injury free and the momentum is with us.”

St Eunan’s returned to training on Tuesday night having wrapped up their celebrations the night before.

And with the exception of David McGinley, suspended following his straight red card in last Sunday’s final the remainder of the 30 man county final panel is fit and ready.