So it’s down to the final six in the All-Ireland senior club championship and, barring any draws this coming Sunday, there’ll be just four clubs still in the hunt for the Andy Merrigan Cup when hostilities recommence early in the New Year.
Six, you ask? I know, three out of the four provincial finals have already been played – with just the Leinster one to come, this Sunday – but the London champions get to join the fun at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage and this year it’s the wonderfully named Kingdom Kerry Gaels who take the field at this juncture. Based on North London’s Finchley – the constituency, incidentally, that returned Margaret Thatcher to the House of Commons from 1959 to 1992 – the Gaels are set to take on the newly-crowned Ulster champions Ballinderry this coming Sunday over in Ruislip.
The Derry and Ulster champions will, of course, be unbackable favourites to prevail on Sunday and you’d be forgiven for assuming that the result in Ruislip is a foregone conclusion. However, many (including myself) made that same assumption about last Sunday’s Munster final and while raging hot favourites Dr. Crokes did manage eventually to scrape past Clare champs Cratloe by the minimum margin in that one, that match showed that you can’t really take anything for granted in this particular championship.
The scare that Crokes got from Cratloe will, one assumes, also help to dispel the growing aura of invincibility that seems to have been thrust on the Killarney club in recent weeks. The bookies still have them down as strong favourites for success on Paddy’s Day next year – they’re 11/10 favourites at the moment with Paddy Power – but they have drifted a little since the Munster final, while Ballinderry’s emergence from Ulster has seen their odds for the All-Ireland cut to just 4/1. (Latest odds here).
Pat Holmes and his Castlebar Mitchels colleagues will doubtless have taken note of how last Sunday’s Munster final played out and will surely be laying their plans for next February’s All-Ireland semi-final accordingly. Against Corofin and again in the Connacht final against St. Brigid’s, Castlebar made life very difficult for themselves by coughing up cheap first half goals and you get the sense – even more so after last Sunday – that if they can remedy this fairly obvious defect, then the craft, astuteness and cussed will-to-win that they’ve shown in spades so far on this campaign could well prove sufficient to carry them onwards to Croke Park in March.
The last of this year’s provincial club finals take place this coming Sunday down at O’Connor Park in Tullamore, where Dublin’s St. Vincents take on perennial Leinster competitors Portlaoise. The latter have been champions on their own patch since 2007 and they’re also the club that has won the most Leinster titles (they have seven, whereas Vincents have just four) but you have to go back a full thirty years for their sole All-Ireland success.
The Marino lads claimed national honours far more recently – winning their second All-Ireland club title in 2008 – and they’re warm favourites to advance on Sunday. This is partly, I’d say, due to the increasing dominance of Dublin sides at provincial level in recent years – where they’ve won four out of the last six Leinster titles – but also the doggedness shown by Vincents in those hard-fought wins over St. Loman’s and Summerhill on the way to the final. The return from suspension of bad boys Diarmuid Connolly and Ger Brennan won’t exactly harm their cause either and so it’s not just a lack of unbiased opinion on my part that has me leaning towards a Vinnies’ victory in this one.