After a hiatus of 4 years this weekend finally sees the long awaited return of the Paul McGirr Ulster U16 Club Championship to Gardrum Park, Dromore. The competition is in a compressed format but no doubt the quality of football on display with be of the highest standard when the champions of Tyrone, Down, Fermanagh and Armagh face off in a battle for the famous Cuchullain bronze trophy.
Tyrone champions Errigal Ciaran and Fermanagh’s Kinawley get proceedings underway on Saturday at 2:00 in the first semi final and it’s a novel pairing as Kinawley make their first appearance at Ulster level at this age group. Errigal Ciaran annexed the Tyrone U16 title following a tough campaign which culminated in an impressive 1-13 to 2-07 victory over a highly fancied Cookstown. They will be looking once again to their star forward Shea McDermott to lead the line where he will be ably supported by centre forward Senan Canavan. Goalkeeper Jude Curran has been a steadying influencefor them with captain Paul McGinley anchoring their defence. The Dunmoyle lads will be favourites heading into the game but manager Hugh Quinn will be under no illusions of what the step up to Ulster level entails. ‘Errigal Ciaran Club has a very strong connection with the McGirr family and Paul’s brother Mickey McGirr was an integral part of our championship teams during the 1990’s and early 2000’s having won a number of Tyrone senior championships and an Ulster Club in 1993’ said Quinn. ‘The boys are delighted the competition has returned and that it will give them a chance to represent the Club in an Official Ulster GAA competition.From the club’s perspective it’s been 11 years since we last got a chance to play in it when our U16s won the 2012 championship and we thought that our chance had gone when it wasn’t possible to have the competition last year after winning the U15 championship. However to be fair to our lads it was a great achievement to be able to defend their title with the same group of players and against the same teams from other clubs in Tyrone when the re-grading from U15 to U16 happened at the start of the 2023 season. So it makes the back to back extra special with the opportunity to play in Ulster.To be honest we don’t know anything about our opponents Kinawley. However their club would have supported us through playing in U12 / U14 tournaments that we hosted back several years ago. We have another connection through our goalkeeper Jude Curran as his grandfather’s club was Kinawley before he relocated up to Belfast.The great thing about a competition like this for all the lads from the clubs that are represented is that it gives them an opportunity to play with a bit less pressure knowing they have already succeeded in their own county so they can express themselves more freely. Having said that our lads are taking it very seriously and will hope to give a good account of themselves as I’m sure all the other teams will do also. It’s very difficult to win county championships and there is no guarantee they can get back to an Ulster stage at any age group so we’ll certainly be doing our utmost to get a result and get to the final of the competition.’
Kinawley qualified for the competition courtesy of winning the Fermanagh U15 title and there will be a few older lads added onto this team to give it an added strength as they seek to be the first Fermanagh team to win the coveted title. The Brian Boru’s defeated Teemore in impressive style in a high scoring Fermanagh final. Tomas Cathcart was their scorer in chief and will certainly be one man earmarked for tight attention by the Errigal defence. Cathair and Aodan Maguire along with Eoin McTernan will be others to look out for but Kinawley manager Darren Boyle is under no illusion as to the task facing his side. ‘We are delighted to be invited to this competition to represent our county. We are currently U15 county champions so we get to add a few from last year’s U15 team. We are really looking forward to getting to play teams fromUlster. Errigal Ciaran have a strong tradition in Ulster and any team that emerges from Tyrone will always be a top class side, but we are confident in our lads and looking forward to the challenge’.
The second semi final takes place on Sunday at 2:00pm and looks set to be a classic with Down champions Carryduff facing Armagh rivals Dromintee. Carryduff have been making serious inroads at underage level in Down and this particular team overcame a highly fancied and current Paul McGirr holders Burren after an epic battle that required a replay in the Down U15 final. Their captain Aodhan McEvoy leads by example for the Down champions while Liam Blaney, Jude Dixon and Owen McHugh will also be some of the leading men looking to progress to the Ulster final. They will be going in as underdogs but as stated by manager Michael McGrath this is a team that has become accustomed to winning and that is a habit they intend to maintain. “Down clubs have a proud tradition in this prestigious competition and we are delighted to fly the Carryduff colours for the first time on behalf of our club and county. There’s no better way to finish our momentous season than to play in this competition. These boys have enjoyed Feile success at county and national level as well as becoming U15 Down Championship winners for the first time in our club’s history. This competition provides the boys with the opportunity to showcase their skills against some of the best teams in Ulster.’
Dromintee are another team who have tasted All Ireland Feile success and are a team that has been earmarked across Ulster as one of the best teams of their generation. However they were pushed all the way by St. Peter’s Lurgan in the Armagh final, having to go to a replay before annexing the U16 title. Managed by Kevin Toale and Aidan O’Rourke they will enter this game as favourites but given the rivalry between Down and Armagh they will be taking nothing for granted as they are aware of the strengths of the Carryduff side. A well marshalled defence is anchored by Gavin O’Rourke and Tomas Fox but it is their midfield partnership of Conor Laverty and Michael Walker that has been catching the eye the most with their powerhouse displays providing plenty of ball to a forward line featuring the dangerous Diarmaid O’Rourke, Oisin Byrne and Ronan Martin. It will be a historic occasion for the Dromintee club and a huge following is anticipated in Dromore as this is the first team from the club to ever represent Armagh at Ulster level. Manager Toale is really looking forward to the occasion. ‘Dromintee U 16 team won the Armagh Div 1 championship. The first game was a hotly contested draw against St Peter’s from Lurgan. The replay, resulted in us coming out dominant winners. The Dromintee club and surrounding parish are very much looking forward to Sunday’s match, this is the first time any men’s Dromintee side has represented Armagh in the Paul McGirr Ulster U16 championship and we hope to do our club and county proud.’