Slaughtneil's defensive solidity key if they're to beat Crokes
WHEN Slaughtneil trooped disconsolately off the Croke Park pitch after defeat by Corofin two years ago today, plenty thought they’d never be back.
The weight of history suggested it. No team from Derry had ever been to an All-Ireland final and returned, win or lose. The only club to feature in two are Bellaghy, but generations separated 1972 from 1995.
The great Lavey (1991) and Ballinderry (2002) teams that won it never made it back. Ballerin’s unsuccessful 1977 sojourn was another one-off.
An element remains within the Oak Leaf county that refuses to give the Emmet’s their full credit, for whatever reason.
But in becoming only the third team ever to win three county titles in-a-row, then winning a second Ulster title within that timeframe, they have stepped to the very brink of greatness.
A Dr Crokes side that has been deeply wounded by battles in the All-Ireland series stand between Mickey Moran and the Andy Merrigan Cup.
It promises to be a fascinating battle that will come down to how well Slaughtneil can restrict the Crokes attack.
Slaughtneil’s trust in man-to-man combat in the full-back line is an unusual tact at Headquarters now, and against a side that has scored 17 goals in its nine games so far, space could prove a great ally to Crokes.
The attacking numbers are heavily weighted in favour of the Kerry champions. Both sides have played nine games to get to this point.
Slaughtneil have scored six goals; Dr Crokes have scored 17.
Slaughtneil’s average score is just under 1-13 per game, while Crokes’ is just over 2-15.
35 per cent of the Derry champions’ scores have come from dead balls, compared just under 18 per cent of the bookies’ favourites.
But the defensive statistics swing back the other way. Slaughtneil haven’t conceded a single goal in nine Championship games and have kept every opponent since their Derry first round win over Lavey (0-12) to 10 points or less.
St Vincent’s were the first since Lavey to reach that figure but that wasn’t enough. Mickey Moran’s side are conceding eight points per game. If they can even keep Crokes to 12 or 13 points, they will stand a fantastic chance of winning this game.
They have the defenders to do that. Brendan Rogers is likely to pick up Daithí Casey, who is Crokes’ top scorer with 4-16.
Kieran O’Leary, chief torment to the Corofin defence, is likely to be Karl McKaigue’s detail, though who picks Colm Cooper up remains to be seen.
Slaughtneil might opt for the brave approach of putting Chrissy McKaigue on him to try and force him to waste energy chasing – a move that famously paid off for Dublin when they used Philip McMahon to do it in the 2015 All-Ireland final.
Versatile veteran Eoin Brosnan, a three-time All-Ireland winner, looks set to return for the Killarney men, and he will create a trio across midfield with Ambrose O’Donovan and Johnny Buckley.
The Munster champions will want to keep their finishers – of which they have plenty – as high up the pitch as they can. As a result, you’d imagine they’ll try and press the Ulster side in their own half.
That was a ploy that worked well for Corofin two years ago. Slaughtneil’s hand-passing game was so exhausting that by the time they reached the opposition half, the runner needed to break the line wasn’t there.
At the other end, Kerry defender Fionn Fitzgerald is almost certain to pick up playmaker Christopher Bradley.
The Croke Park factor is one that many observers feel could work against Mickey Moran’s side.
There’s concern about how effective the hand-passing, possession-based game will be on the huge surface.
In terms of that, it’s unfair to look to their 2015 visit. Patsy Bradley was riddled with injury. Slaughtneil couldn’t win a ball at midfield to start an attack. Corofin put an early chokehold on them and there was just no release.
Their playmaker-in-chief Christopher Bradley was a shadow of himself, severely hampered by the broken collarbone suffered in the semi-final win over Kerry’s other black-and-ambers, Austin Stacks.
Both Bradleys are fit and going well this time.
And this is a different, more energetic Slaughtneil team. Padraig Cassidy will run all day. Keelan Feeney and Meehaul McGrath are critical links that will provide pace and longevity.
Shane McGuigan has spent most of the year at wing-forward, from where the teenager still manager to top the scoring charts in the Derry SFC. He will start there but expect that if things aren’t clicking in attack, his keen eye for goal – he has a couple in Croke Park already – could see him move inside.
Trying to maintain a presence in the half-forward line that will allow them to build more quickly than in previous games will be of utmost importance for Mickey Moran’s side.
Because there is no doubt that Dr Crokes’ style will be kinder to the legs. They were patient against Corofin but they will hope with all the space in Croke Park that they can utilise the kick-pass.
With ball-players like Colm Cooper, Gavin O’Shea, Eoin Brosnan and Johnny Buckley supplying the bullets, Pat O’Shea’s side will be confident that their attacking style will allow them to conserve the energy they will need to defend.
They have seven of the side that lost the 2007 final after a replay to Crossmaglen still involved, including Cooper, Brosnan and O’Leary.
Since then they’ve been desperate to get back to the decider, losing three straight semi-finals between 2012 and 2014. In terms of setting the record straight, they carry more hurt than Slaughtneil do.
They carry more attacking potential and on the big pitch, the fear is that they are the side with more scope for scoreboard damage.
But so looked St Vincent’s, and Kilcoo, even Ballinderry.
If Slaughtneil keep another clean sheet this evening, chances are they will be coming back up the road as All-Ireland club champions.