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Slaughtneil may have Omagh's measure yet again

Slaughtneil’s Karl McKaigue and Omagh’s Ronan O’Neill, pictured during the 2014 Ulster decider, are expected to renew acquaintances in tonight’s Ulster Club SFC quarter-final Picture: Colm O’Reilly
Neil Loughran

AIB Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final:

Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) v Omagh St Enda’s (Tyrone) (tonight, Celtic Park, 7pm)

NOVEMBER 30, 2014 – a huge day in the storied tale of Slaughtneil, its significance stretching far beyond bringing the Seamus McFerran Cup back to the south Derry village for the first time.

A second Ulster title was added last year, and they travel to Celtic Park for tonight’s quarter-final clash with Omagh as favourites not only to progress, but to land the provincial crown for the third time in four years.

Yet a major turning point in that rise and rise came at half-time in the 2014 decider. The St Enda’s were the opponents that dank day in Armagh, and at half-time led the newly-crowned Derry champions by three.

Inside the Athletics Ground changing room, Mickey Moran and John Joe Kearney knew something had to change. They opted to dispense with their sweeper, redeploying Conan Cassidy and pushing Omagh back.

From three down, Slaughtneil were one ahead when the final whistle blew. They haven’t imposed a designated sweeper since, and the rest is history.

Almost three years on from that fateful day, the clubs renew acquaintances tonight.

The Emmet’s came into their 2014 meeting on the back of a first county title in a decade, and have accumulated enough silverware in the time between to justify their favourites’ tag.

But just as they did then, Omagh have the personnel to push Slaughtneil all the way.

Solid as a rock defensively, strong around the middle, and with a fair mix of pace, power and panache up top, the St Enda’s will not be easy shifted by anyone.

They needed a bit of luck to get over the line against Errigal Ciaran in the Tyrone final, Peter Harte’s first half penalty miss boosting their cause no end, but anything other than an Omagh win would have been an injustice.

The Ballygawley men sat deep, often leaving Davy Harte isolated at full-forward, while Ciaran McLaughlin was handed the task of shackling Peter Harte any time the ball came his way.

Often finding themselves with so little support though, it was a handy enough day’s work for the Omagh defence. Time and again they swarmed Errigal men and turned the ball over with the minimum of fuss.

Conor Meyler dropped out around the middle and was always available to recycle possession, with Conan Grugan and Ronan O’Neill acting as playmakers-in-chief while Conor O’Donnell provides the thrust in the final third.

In their 2014 encounter, Meyler – then just 20 – successfully nullified the threat of Chrissy McKaigue, and it will be interesting to see if he carries out the same role tonight.

It would be no surprise if the tenacious Keelan Feeney was asked to limit Meyler’s time on the ball, with McKaigue instead facing up to Conan Grugan.

The hard running of Barry Tierney caused Errigal no end of problems, and he was Omagh’s top performer in their last meeting with the Emmet’s. Paul McNeill might be the man for that job. Karl McKaigue, Slaughtneil’s stickiest man-marker, kept Ronan O’Neill scoreless three years ago but couldn’t stop the Tyrone forward creating space and opportunities for those around him.

Another tussle between that pair is expected tonight, with Brendan Rogers likely to be tasked with nullifying the threat of O’Donnell, the stand-out player of Omagh’s campaign thus far.

A personal trainer, O’Donnell might be the man best equipped to follow Rogers’s trademark bursts up the field from full-back.

Midfield will be an interesting tussle as Patsy Bradley and the dynamic Padraig Cassidy go up against Conor Clarke and Michael Gallagher, while Turlough Gallagher and possibly Cormac O’Neill will filter back to aid the Omagh defensive effort.

In the expected absence of Paul Bradley, Christopher Bradley – the match-winner in 2014 – is likely to drift around centre-forward and drive Slaughtneil forward, with McLaughlin possibly tasked with keeping an eye.

Cormac O’Doherty scored a goal off Hugh Gallagher inside a minute last time, although the St Enda’s full-back recovered to perform well and pair could renew acquaintances, unless Gallagher starts on Se McGuigan.

A real tactical battle awaits as both teams are quite happy to play patient, lateral football, waiting for gaps to appear before committing to the attack.

Looking at the potential match-ups, it is clear that Omagh have the forward power to trouble Slaughtneil, but the reigning champions have been here before.

Plenty expected St Vincent’s to have too much firepower in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final but that threat was well snuffed out and, having been on the road together for so long, they have come up against just about every kind of challenge a team could face.

Given the talent in their ranks and the doggedness of their defence, odds of 5/2 on Omagh perhaps look a bit long, and it would be no surprise if this game goes right down to the last again.

But it was their game management that saw Slaughtneil through against Kilcoo in the preliminary round, and it is hard to shake the feeling that big game experience will get them over the line when it really matters tonight.

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