Slaughtneil chase historic three-in-a-row
M&L Contracts Derry SFC final: St. Patrick’s Loup v Robert Emmet’s Slaughtneil (tomorrow, 3.45pm, Celtic Park)
THREE-in-a-row has only been done by two clubs in the history of Derry football. That’s the level of achievement this Slaughtneil crop is on the verge of.
When Gerald Bradley flicked home that injury-time goal against Ballinderry to claim a first Championship in a decade in 2014, there weren’t many predictions that they would go back-to-back.
By the time they’d come out the other side of Ulster, accounted for Austin Stacks and played in an historic first All-Ireland club final, they were left with injuries that threatened to derail 2015.
But that’s where the experience of Mickey Moran shone through. The likes of Barry McGuigan and Patsy Bradley barely kicked a ball for three months. By the time the Championship began, they were fit and refreshed, and after a rusty start, they went on to retain their title.
It secured them credit and earned them serious sway. And it was always easier to see them going three-in-a-row at the start of this year than it was to see them doubling up at the start of last year.
The Loup will, of course, have plenty to say before half past 5 tomorrow evening.
It may be seven years since they appeared in a county final, but there are as many as nine of the 19 players they used that day still in contention, with eight of them likely to start.
Loup full-forward Paul Young is the only man from their squad on the quest for a third county, having worn 15 in their Derry and Ulster winning campaign of 2003. He is still only 30.
When Johnny McBride took over his native club at the start of the year, he set quickly about rectifying their one real weakness. Loup had all the pace and ability in the world, but they just couldn’t break the tackles.
They have developed physically and they now carry themselves with the same strut and confidence as the teams that McBride so memorably soldiered on.
It has the makings of a gripping final. Last year, a combination of Coleraine’s style of play and live TV coverage meant the crowd stayed away from Celtic Park. The attendance tomorrow could be almost double what it was last October.
Loup will come out and play Slaughtneil at their own game, which is a man-for-man approach. Anything else would be a deference, and that is something they will not provide the reigning champions.
It has its risks. Bellaghy and Derrygonnelly were the two teams last year that came and tried it, but it blew up in both their faces as Slaughtneil ran riot in attack.
The fact that Celtic Park is tighter than Owenbeg – where both those games were played – will perhaps suit The Loup in that approach.
In Terence O’Brien, they have had arguably the Championship’s best midfielder to date. His athleticism and willingness to drive straight at opponents, coupled with Aidan McAlynn’s raids beside him, will be invaluable.
Loup have had great joy in their last two games by attacking the opposition’s kickout. At times in Slaughtneil’s first round win over Lavey, they had bother retaining their own ball until Lavey eased up on pressing and allowed the Emmet’s out.
Twin brothers Colm and Dominic McVey will be tasked with picking up Cormac O’Doherty and Shane McGuigan inside, while Conall McGinley is likely to be handed the task of curtailing playmaker Christopher Bradley.
If Loup can get the same out of their impressive young wing-backs Patrick Coney and Jason Rocks, and they can get Anthony O’Neill and Brian Doyle involved in attack, they have enough to stop Slaughtneil in their tracks.
But Mickey Moran’s men just seem to find a way to win these days. They will be confident that Karl McKaigue, Brendan Rogers and Paul McNeill will cope man-against-man in the full-back line.
If even two of those three win their battles, Slaughtneil will win the war again.