All-Ireland Club Junior Football quarter-final: St Peters (Lancashire) v Castleknock (Dublin) – Old Bedians, Manchester; Sunday, 1pm.
OVER 30 years have passed since Sean Hopkins played a pivotal role in establishing St Peters in Manchester.
He pauses to recall how it all came about, surprising even himself by how long ago it was. There have been ups and downs along the way, but the club has never been as strong as it is now.
All-Britain champions at a time when more football than ever before is being played on this side of the Irish Sea. St Peters are at the summit, searching for a way to climb even higher.
“It was around 1981, I think, and a few of us were together in sixth form in St Peters school in Manchester. The school had a lot of lads of Irish descent,” Hopkins says.
“So we entered a team into a seven-a-side competition in Manchester and ended up winning it. St Peters, the club as it is today, was born out of that.
“In the next couple of years we won minor and junior championships and then went straight up senior. So in the space of three years, we went from the school gates up to being a senior team and we have been ever since.”
Hopkins tasted championship success with St Peters as a player, but nowadays his beat is the sideline, from where he pulls the strings as manager alongside Barry McGeehan.
Last month they regained the All-Britain Football crown, their third in nine years. Their last success came in 2010, the club’s best season to date.
That All-Britain title would be bettered later in that championship campaign by a historic All-Ireland Junior Football quarter-final triumph over Mayo and Connacht champions Parke at Old Bedians.
It was only January of last year, but just seven members of that panel are still with St Peters now. The revolving door policy of British GAA is nothing new to Hopkins, but he’s not concerned either.
According to the man at the helm, St Peters 2012 are a more formidable outfit than the 2010 vintage. They’ll have the chance to prove that on Sunday.
Old Bedians again. Back in an All-Ireland quarter-final. Another club side from one of Ireland’s strongest football counties arriving in Manchester with a swagger. But St Peters have seen that before. They’ll be ready.
“We set our stall out at the start of the season to be still playing at this stage of the championship so the lads are in the right frame of mind,” says Hopkins, who’s also currently serves as Lancashire County Board chairman.
“We knew we’d have a strong chance of winning the All-Britain if we got out of Lancashire. We thought Lancashire would be our hardest test and it was. It was our aim to get to where we are now so it shouldn’t have come as any surprise to the lads and I expect them to be prepared, both physically and mentally.”
Their opponents may have one of Ireland’s most-talked about young sportsmen in tow when they step off the plane at Manchester Airport this weekend.
Ciaran Kilkenny has already begun life as a professional Australian Rules player with Hawthorn Hawks, but the former Dublin star is rumoured to be in line for a return to the Castleknock team for Sunday’s game against Peters.
Regardless of whether Kilkenny plays or not, the Leinster champions will carry the tag of favourites with them. Either way, Hopkins is adamant that St Peters’ plans won’t change.
“We’ll approach the game the same way, no matter what. He [Kilkenny] is a bit special and if he’s playing we’ll certainly give him respect and attention, but we won’t get too hung up on him.
“You need to have belief in your own players and they need to have belief in themselves as well, trusting themselves to be good enough to play their own game and win it for us like that. We’ll look to put the pressure on them instead of the other way around.”
The St Peters mantra this year has not just been to win, but to win by playing an attractive brand of football. They’ve been easy on the eye and the step-up in competition won’t change that.
“We know that Castleknock play good football, but so do we,” Hopkins says. “They might have an impression of British teams who base their game on dragging and pulling, but that’s not us. Our lads aren’t interested in that. We play football and we’ll be going for them.”
St Peters were kept on their toes as the Lancashire and All-Britain Championships drew to a climax, playing five games in seven weeks between the end of September and mid-November.
But they’ve had a four-week lay-off from competitive action since their facile provincial final win against St Colmcilles, ticking over with training on astro-turf surfaces as the winter rain softens the turf and makes pitches unplayable.
Peters have shown themselves to be a well-balanced side this season, with key players throughout the side proving leadership and shouldering responsibility.
There’s a six-strong Mayo contingent on board, with Liam Coyne and Declan O’Leary the only British-born players on the panel.
Captain Dominic Lennon has been particularly influential at centre-back, while Dessie O’Malley and Stephen Hughes are always a threat in attack.
But Peters’ experienced midfield duo could provide the key platform, according to Hopkins. Joe Corcoran and Ronan Gallagher are stalwarts, having been at the heart of their 2010 success too.
Hopkins says: “I think we might be able to get the upper hand in midfield. If we can get 60 per cent of possession there and keep getting the ball into our forwards we’ll be on the right track.
“But you could look at us one day and say our defence is our biggest strength, yet the next day you could it’s our forwards. As I see it, we’re a decent unit.
“Are we better than we were two years ago? We think so. There’s more experience there and there’s definitely an improvement in personnel too.”
These games against the cream of the crop from Ireland are a bit special for Sean Hopkins. Born and bred in England, seeing the club he helped to build win an All-Ireland quarter-final two seasons ago was as good as it’s gotten so far.
Repeating that achievement this weekend would surpass that, however. Castleknock have looked impressive, destined it seems for Croke Park on February 9. But the message from Sean Hopkins is clear: don’t write us off.
“They’re coming to a new place, somewhere they’re not familiar with and haven’t played before, so I think a lot will depend on how they settle early on. I think they’ll expect to get a good start but if we can prevent them from doing that it will probably put some doubts in the minds.
“We’re looking forward to this. We’ve been there before and we’re not afraid of anybody. We beat Parke at this stage two years ago and we believe it can be done again.”