So the Harps went up to this year’s Ulster Club a bit under the radar, with 1-20 journos' favourites Slaughtneil not expected to break sweat on the way to a semi final slot (Have to say, a lot of journalists and columnists were pretty lazy in their informed punditry over the last week, they could have bothered to check us out at least). Things didn’t quite work out that way, and as Garvan Jones converted a free in the 58th minute, the Derry champions led by two points, 9-7, and they had to produce a very professional effort against our 14 men to take the thing home in the end. So in our fifth shot at it, the Harps have finally put in a performance in the Ulster Club. Slaughtneil deserved their win on the day, but there was plenty of food for thought for the Harps afterwards as well.
The half time score was 0-6 to 0-5 in favour of Slaughtneil, and Harps supporters would definitely point to the opening thirty minutes in terms of opportunities not converted, possession not turned into scores. Fifteen minutes in, Ryan Jones boomed over a great score to put us 4-3 up. Paul Bradley from frees was the key Slaughtneil scorer, while our first three points had come from Garvan Jones (free and play) plus Leigh Jones. Bradley levelled, Foss had a nice one from play to put us ahead again, Bradley levelled again, before Patsy Bradley capitalised on a turnover ball to send over the final score of the half off the outside of his boot 6-5 to Slaughtneil. Turnover ball gets punished.
Ten minutes into the second half, there was still a point in it, with Shane McGuigan and Leigh Jones (free), exchanging scores. Ref Noel Mooney of Cavan had black carded Patsy Bradley and also Harps’ Mo Cassidy by that stage, and he was to send Paul Ward to the line for a second yellow card with maybe fifteen to go - an obvious turning point in hindsight. On 50 minutes, Cormac O’Doherty had a point for 9-6 to Slaughtneil to put them in the kind of position they were unlikely to cough up, especially with a spare man. They absorbed a bit of Harps pressure, as Garvan brought it to 9-7 on 58 minutes, and went straight downfield to pick off scores from Shane McGuigan and then Karl mcKaigue. Finally Barry McGuigan gave them a five point margin and they were into the semi.
From a Harps point of view, a lot of things went right: the shape of the team when not in possession was top class, clear evidence of detailed preparation which all of the players bought into, the defensive play and turnover count must be pretty decent, the Harps more than matched their opponents in the middle third, with a few clean takes, but also a lot of secondary possession well secured. It was the move of the ball into the final third (or maybe the whole transition of play from defence into attack), which proved to be the most difficult part of the thing for us. In truth, that is always the case for the underdog who manages to compete well. Think most Fermanagh games, for instance. There's that point when a team is forty yards from an opponent's goal, from there onwards is key. It is a difficult part of the modern game.
For the Harps to have won today, they would probably have needed even more possession than they had (even though we did well on that front), virtually no wides (we had a few), Slaughtneil to have an off day and miss a few chances (their conversion rate was good), the ref to give us a few chancy decisions (he didn’t really) and we might have sneaked home by one. Some people might remember a St Michael’s MacRory Cup Final win over Maghera in 2012, or Fermanagh’s USFC semi win over Derry in 2008, or Roscommon in 2015 - that kind of thing.
But… there was a lot to admire in the performance: the collective effort (as opposed to a few brave individual performances in defeat), the fact that we were well able to compete with a top Ulster side, the know-how compared to last year’s well meaning but ultimately pretty headless performance (being kind there maybe..) and the belief. Now belief is pointless if you can’t back it up, but there was evidence today that the Harps can compete with anyone.
The trouble is, they are now as far away as ever from the Ulster Club. The first round of the Fermanagh SFC is the focus now.
Was 2016 our club’s best ever season in terms of performance? In this writers opinion, yes. So salute every single person who contributed to it in whatever way. Thank you.