They don’t set out to make things hard. It just, kind of, happens. In recent years, Ardee St Marys have carved out something of a niche for themselves. Never deterred, opposition teams can be forgiven for thinking even the most seemingly unassailable lead is under threat against the Blues.
En route to last year’s Senior Football Championship final, the group stage saw the Ardee men squander a seven point lead in their group opener against Dundalk Gaels to draw. In the quarter-final, the 14-man Marys trailed Naomh Mairtin by eight points in the second half – coming back to earn a draw and then progress to the semi-final in a replay. The last four clash with Dreadnots saw Darren Clarke’s last gasp double edge the Marys through.
This season, that theme has continued. Late drama never seems to be too far away. Midfielder Robbie Leavy reckons his side’s ability to win games at the death is a strength they’ve acquired in recent times – and it can only help them going forward.
“We’ve added that to our game in the last couple of years. We play until the end no matter what the circumstances, we play away,” he told ThisIsArdee.ie. “There were years there where we would be being beaten by a few points with 10 minutes to go and we were beat. The last two or three years has brought that added steel.
“We won a couple of games this year in the last couple of minutes. We beat the Clans with a last minute penalty save and then we beat the Gaels with the last kick of the ball. We could have beaten the Pats with the last kick too, but it dropped short.”
“Last year, we beat the Dreadnots by a point – again the last kick of the game. Then there was the Martins in the Championship; we stuck away at it and keep going till the end. We have added that to our game and it’s helped,” he continued.
It doesn’t always end well. They can sometimes be guilty of throwing it away too. The Blues have notched 3-11 and 3-14 in both of their league defeats in 2017, yet succumbed to late defeats against Newtown Blues and Cooley Kickhams.
Leavy and his teammates would much prefer to give themselves a more comfortable, less hectic passage through the Championship early stages this year but they are all too aware it won’t be that easy. Replicating last year’s run to the final isn’t in their immediate thoughts. Navigating the group is.
“There’s nothing to say we’ll walk to the senior championship, or even get to the final,” he said. “We have the Senior champions and Intermediate champions in our group. It’s a very tough group. We need to focus on getting out of it first and foremost.
ARDEE ST MARYS
- Manager – Hugh Durrigan
- Captain – John Bingham
- Key Player – Ronan Carroll
- 2017 Top Scorer (League) – Alan Kirk (2-23)
- 2017 Ever Presents (League) – Peter Duffy, Eamon Callaghan, Robbie Leavy, Alan Kirk, Kian Moran
- How They Fared Last Year – Beaten Finalists
- 2017 League & Cup Record – P11 W7 D1 L3
“The Dreadnots a few years ago they got to their first senior final in a long time and the next year, they were in the relegation playoffs.” Whilst the Marys should be looking forward to making progress rather than over their shoulder at the prospect of demotion, Leavy is right. It’s a difficult group they find themselves in.
Last year’s final foes Sean O’Mahony’s await next week after Marys clash with St Joseph’s on Saturday in Castlebellingham (7.30pm). The Dromiskin men have injuries to contend with but are enjoying a reasonably good season in Division 2. They could pose a threat.
The final loss at the Gaelic Grounds hit the players hard. In a small town like Ardee, it’s difficult to escape cup final fever in the build up. Players could be forgiven for allowing the spectre of a two decade Championship winning void to weigh heavy on their minds. The 31-year-old admits for a while, football was the last thing on his mind.
“For a few weeks after it, you don’t want to know anything about football,” he says. “But we got back together for pre-season and Paddy Martin has come in and he wasn’t involved last year so he’s a fresh voice. Although we have the three lads that were involved still there (Hugh Durrigan, Alan McKenny and Brian Keenan), Paddy is taking training and a fresh voice has brought a bit more to it as well.
“We just have to put it in the past. We won nothing last year. We got to the final but we’d be fools to think we’ll get straight to the final again this year. Our main objective is to get out of the group. Our main objective for the year is in September to be competing in league semi-finals and Championship quarter-finals or semi-finals. We’ll take it from there.”
Leavy says the introduction of Martin has helped the players, calling the former Donaghmoyne coach “brilliant”, adding that while he’s “serious at the best of times” the Monaghan man has been instrumental in integrating some younger players into the fold too.
“He hasn’t slogged us but he’s given us some tough sessions over the year. He’s serious at the best of times but he understands there’s a bit of fun involved as well. That’s helped bring a long a few of the younger lads into the team, it’s not so daunting for them when they come along. He gives everyone a shot.”
The likes of Ronan Carroll and Darren Clarke – survivors from 2003’s final defeat to St Parts – remain pivotal players at senior level 14 years on. Leavy now considers himself one of the older heads, alongside players such as Alan Kirk and Peter Duffy. But while experience is an abundance at Pairc Muire, there’s no shortage of younger players keeping the average down – and older teammates on their toes.
On Tuesday night, six St Marys teenagers helped Louth’s Minors reach a first Leinster final in 46 years. Leavy believes they will soon be involved at senior team level for their club. “Maybe we’ll bring them in towards the end and supplement the squad even more.”
“We’ve been lucky over the last while because we probably have six starters that started for the minors over the last couple of years. A lot of clubs don’t get that amount of players from minor teams. We had Evan (Keenan) and Benny (Brendan Matthews) who were playing Minor last year and started the Minor final. And then we had Conor (Keenan) – our whole half back line have been Minors in the last few years.
“The club has been putting a lot of work in at juvenile level,” he continues. “It’s been paying off, it just needs to pay off that little bit more in the adult side of things. It keeps us older lads on our toes. We’ll be out on our ears soon if it continues at this rate!”
With games coming thick and fast over the summer months – and with league and championship ambitions vying for attention – a sizeable panel is required and the Marys are in a position which many clubs around the county will be envious of.
“We definitely used maybe 25 or 30 players in the league so far. We’ve had suspensions, lads missing a few games through through injury. In fairness to the lads who came in, we got a couple of results when we were down to the bare bones. It’s a bonus to know we have five or six lads you can throw in and trust to throw on.”
Whether or not they can replicate last year’s run to the final, you can trust the Marys won’t be throwing in the towel on their Championship bid until the very last whistle.