Yesterday he provided a comprehensive preview of this weekend’s Junior and Intermediate action and today Edwin McGreal is back with his thoughts on the two Senior semi-finals that are down for decision on Saturday and Sunday.
The Senior Championship has been an intriguing one in Mayo and it says something for Ballintubber that they are many people’s favourites, including this writer, to win it out against the three traditional powerhouses of Mayo club football.
Between them Ballina Stephenites (36), Castlebar Mitchels (27) and Knockmore (8) have won 71 county titles, Ballintubber just one. But that one was last year and they’ve had the look of a team since who are not willing to be content with being one-trick ponies.
In this week’s Mayo News I did an analysis piece on Ballintubber with Shrule/Glencorrib and Mayo ace Mark Ronaldson and former Knockmore player and manager Nigel Reape. These two men have been involved in the three blotches on Ballintubber’s copybook in the last three seasons.
Incredibly, in 41 league and championship games since the start of 2009 the Abbeysiders have only lost three games – once in championship in 2009 to Reape’s Knockmore; in league to Reape’s side again in ’10 and their one defeat this year, in league to Shrule/Glencorrib.
The full piece is here. The consensus is that Ballintubber are very hard to break down and their workrate and no little ability combine to make them a formidable foe. Their deference to the game plan and the team at the cost of individuals is also very noticeable.
So, can they be beaten this weekend? Ballina are that rarity of teams, one who can play poorly for long stages and still rock up at the business end of the championship with full belief in their ability to go on and win the thing.
Witness their two substandard displays against Breaffy in their quarter-final draw and replay. I did, as a Breaffy man. We left that one behind us and Ballina know as much but, without ever having played like they can, the 2005 All-Ireland champs are back in the last four. They went into the 2007 semi-final against the then champions elect, Ballaghaderreen, as massive underdogs. Ballina ended that year as Mayo and Connacht champions.
Many of the heroes of 2005 are still around. Some a little greyer, some a little rounder but all with invaluable experience of the business end of the championship. Pat Harte, Ronan McGarrity and David Clarke are all still young enough to be inter-county players, or, in Harte’s case, worthy of another look. Ger Brady, Eanna Casey, Liam Brady, Paul McGarry, Brian Ruane and, if needed in goal, manager John Healy, might all be the wrong side of 30 but some of them have plenty left in the tank and others, while coming towards the end, know what to do in tight games. Certainly Ger Brady appears to be hitting form at the right time based on the recent league display I saw of him against Castlebar. And while they never made it to the county set-up, Stephen Hughes, Patrick McHale and Shane Melia were and remain very solid club footballers.
So what have they to supplement that? Ger Cafferkey for one. The Mayo full-back was only a minor in 2005 and, if there has been a problem with Ballina, it’s that he’s the only serious player Ballina have brought through until this year. But what we’ve seen of Evan Regan, only a minor still, has been nothing but impressive. The corner-forward nearly beat Breaffy on his own in the drawn game and was a handful in the replay too. He kicked 0-11 in a county minor semi-final last Sunday and is a scoring threat Ballina badly needed.
Another new player to the scene this year, Austin O’Toole, has potential too. A rangy and pacy midfielder, he offers something different. Other players to emerge in the intervening period include David O’Mahoney, Thomas Doherty and, only a sub in 2005 but a crucial one, Aidan Tighe.
Importantly they have, in Harte and McGarrity, the ability to get a platform at midfield but Ballintubber’s ability to win primary possession is in evidence too. Jason Gibbons will undoubtedly feel he has a point to prove after a low level involvement in Mayo’s summer. Beside him Micheál Hoban is out of retirement and brings remarkable strength to the middle.
Looking at Ballintubber as individual players we see plenty of ability but not necessarily enough to frighten every team. Alan Dillon and Cillian O’Connor are their blue-chip forwards but don’t dismiss the contribution to this team that the likes of Alan Plunkett, Padraic O’Connor, Michael Nestor and plenty of forward power off the bench make to this team. They have the scoring power their game-plan requires.
Nestor has operated as an orthodox forward this year, compared to the sweeper role he performed last year, but Ballintubber remain hard to break down. In defenders like the Earley brothers, Tom and Paul, Danny Geraghty, Ruaidhri O’Connor, Cathal Hallinan, Gary Loftus, Liam Tunney and Myles Kelly, Ballintubber have plenty of options but it is the way they play as a team rather than any individual that defines them and makes them hard to beat.
It’s a cliché that defending starts from corner-forward back but Ballintubber make that statement very real. Nigel Reape reckons Cillian O’Connor is the most intensive tackler, forward or defender, in the county. As soon as Ballintubber lose possession, players either cover back goalside of the ball or put ferocious pressure on the man in possession. How often do you see Ballintubber being hit for a quick sucker punch? Rarely.
The midfield platform will be key. Ballina might be able to create that to ensure quicker ball inside but have they the scoring power? We think an awful lot of pressure will rely on Evan Regan’s young shoulders. Ballintubber, meanwhile, have Dillon, O’Connor and Co. They’ll have enough here, just.
But who will play them in the final? Knockmore and Castlebar met at this very stage last year and there it was the Mitchels who triumphed. Much has been made of how crucial the loss of Declan Sweeney through injury early in that game was for Knockmore but, for me, more crucial still was the ability of Richie Feeney to tie up Knockmore’s main man, Aidan Kilcoyne.
Sweeney will play this weekend, despite a broken wrist he picked up in August. So, too, will Kilcoyne, despite his shoulder injury. It is a very hard game to call for a few reasons. Both teams showed their capability in parts of their quarter-final wins but have been indifferent in the league since then.
It can be said, too, that both are stronger defensively than in attack. Mitchels have four county senior panellists in defence – Alan and Richie Feeney, Tom Cunniffe and Eoghan O’Reilly. They’ve no slouches in the other two positions either with Niall McCarney and Seanie Ryder looking like they’ll keep quality defenders like Donie Newcombe and Ronan Burke off the team. Ryder has, in fact, been Mitchels’ best player all year after a return from a lengthy time off with a variety of injury troubles.
For Knockmore there’s county men Kevin McLoughlin and Trevor Howley, the immovable object that is Declan Sweeney and serious club defenders like Shane McHale, Brian Gibbons and John Brogan. McLoughlin and Brogan may yet play in attack to give Knockmore more balance.
Mitchels look the stronger at midfield in paper with former county men Barry Moran, who still has something to offer if he gets a run free from injury, and Shane Fitzmaurice. Against them are relative unknowns in Stephen Sweeney and Andrew Keane but Knockmore’s ability to do well at midfield is remarkable. Keane has, in fact, been their most impressive player this year. I’ve seen three of their four championship games and he’s done an excellent job on formidable opponents like Aidan O’Shea and James Kilcullen. Sweeney, for his part, rarely looks like a match-winner either but always seems to do enough. Don’t dismiss either Knockmore man.
So to the respective attacks and what will decide the result in this hard to predict game. Mitchels would love to have Tom King fit. The Mervue United player had been making a serious impression for Mitchels in corner-forward and freeing up Neil Douglas in the other corner until King did his cruciate knee ligament earlier in the summer.
It leaves Douglas as the significant threat inside for Mitchels and his performance will be key to Mitchels progressing. Players like Kevin Filan, Neil Lydon, Aidan Walsh and Danny Kirby all have the capacity to change games too but Douglas is Mitchels’ main game winner and his form will be crucial.
Lydon is coming into good form too and has serious talent. He hasn’t always delivered but how Mitchels would love if he could produce on Saturday.
At the other end there’s the aforementioned Kilcoyne but he’s not alone. Damien Munnelly is a consistently influential club footballer and then there’s Kevin O’Neill. Eighteen years since ‘Chuckie’ won an All-Star, one of the most talented Mayo forwards of his generation is still bringing plenty to the table. Sure, he might have lost a yard or two of pace, but his experience is vital. A cool head when all others might be losing theirs. Whether Raymond Dempsey can get enough out of younger players like Brian Timlin, Colm Donnellan and Brian Ruttledge remains to be seen. All have potential but this level is relatively new to them.
There are more questions than answers about this duel. Both teams can be inconsistent and have been but Knockmore’s ability to ‘rock-up’ for championship is definitely the stronger. I’d be more concerned about Mitchels, despite a good win over Shrule/Glencorrib last week. Knockmore, just.
A Knockmore v Ballintubber final would be an intriguing one as Knockmore are the one team left in the competition who Ballintubber have not beaten in the last three years. Knockmore beat them in championship in 2009, league in 2010 and this year’s league game was a draw. That final would whet the appetite but Ballina and Castlebar might have something to say about that.
Castlebar v Knockmore, Saturday at 4.30pm in Castlebar
Ballintubber v Ballina, Sunday at 3.30pm in Castlebar