Derrygonnelly Harps will improve but not enough to halt Slaughtneil juggernaut
AIB Ulster Senior Club Football Championship quarter-final: Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil v Derrygonnelly Harps (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Celtic Park)
NO matter the level of achievement, the Slaughtneil mentality always remains the same: What’s next?
Partly because, no matter what they have achieved over the last four years, there’s always been something more on the other side of the next hurdle. And they always want it.
No sooner had the Four Seasons Cup been carried to the stage in Emmet Park – the first time the Ulster hurling trophy had ever been brought to Derry – than their dual players were focussing on the next challenge.
That challenge is a relatively familiar one as an Ulster club series goes. Derrygonnelly were first up in their path in the Ulster football series last year when the sides met in the preliminary round at Owenbeg.
The crisp mid-October sun suited the Derry champions, who punished Martin Greene’s side for coming out to play them man-for-man.
The Harps were the second team in a matter of weeks to go with such a gameplan against the Emmet’s after Bellaghy, and they were the second team in a matter of weeks to pay the price as Slaughtneil racked up 4-13.
Derrygonnelly’s preparations had been difficult, though, as they were hit by the emotional impact of losing clubman Damian McGovern in a tragic accident leading to the postponement of the county final, pushing it to within seven days of their trip to Derry.
This time, they’ve had almost a full month since retaining the Fermanagh title back-to-back for the first time in their history.
In between, they were comfortable victors over Teemore to complete the double for the second year running. There can be little debate as to who the superpower in Erne football is right now.
They’ve had to do it without key defender Tiernan Daly, who suffered a damaged cruciate ligament playing for Trinity College earlier in the year. Eamon McHugh, who was on the fringes of Pete McGrath’s panel this year, is waiting on an ankle operation and has missed the whole Championship as well.
When these two met last year, that duo represented the full-back line that was so cruelly exposed on the big pitch. That they were so powerless owed so much to the quality and quantity of service coming in to Sé McGuigan and Cormac O’Doherty.
So they could have done without the loss of Conall Jones on top of it. He had long been booked to go Australia at the end of their domestic season, and represents a considerable absence at midfield for the Harps.
Their boss, former Fermanagh midfielder and veteran of 25 years’ service with the club Martin Greene, feels that they can take the step up despite those absences.
“We’d like to think we have the strongest squad in Fermanagh and hopefully the players step up to the challenge on Sunday.
“They all want to improve themselves as players and we feel that there’s three or four more can step up on Sunday. We’re trying to develop players to be comfortable.
“I suppose winning the double-double means we are a good team, but we want to compete at Ulster club.”
No better test than the only one of the eight teams left in the competition that has ever lifted the Seamus McFerran Cup. That it was two years ago and that Slaughtneil have arguably gotten better since then is enough to see them into this campaign as favourites for an unprecedented provincial double in hurling and football.
The manner of their county final victory over Loup was reminiscent of the display Ballinderry produced in 2013 when they comfortably saw off Ballinascreen before going on to lift the Ulster crown.
Mickey Moran has added more pace and scoring power to their team since the game last year. Teenager Keelan Feeney has forced his way into what was Barry McGuigan’s slot at wing-back, while Shane McGuigan – who topped the Derry scoring charts at the tender age of 18 – and Meehaul McGrath have become regulars in the forward line ahead of Padrig Kelly and Ronan Bradley.
Mickey Jones found it tough to curtail Christopher Bradley last year but, in the probability that he will be handed the same task, he will be eager for some personal redemption.
The Fermanagh champions scored just 1-4 in Owenbeg twelve months ago but had opportunity for far more.
You’d imagine that they will never be as open defensively again, and Celtic Park’s smaller surface will make it more manageable defensively.
The belief that they will improve, even in spite of their losses, is a viable one. But they won’t improve enough to cause an upset or probably even get particularly close.
Slaughtneil’s winning run to continue with six to spare.