Lámh Dhearg's reliable scorers may tip the balance
Northern Switchgear Antrim SFC final: Lámh Dhearg v St John’s (tomorrow, 3.15pm, Glenavy)
NO matter how strong the empire, there always comes a day when it is not there any more.
In Antrim football terms, that day is tomorrow. For two full decades, St Gall’s and Cargin have ruled the roost, sharing the county titles 13-7 since 1998.
When the draw was made back on February 1, the path seemed clear for the two old rivals to do it all over again but instead, tomorrow’s decider will carry a different type of intrigue.
It is an all-west Belfast affair, between the 1998 winners and the side that most repeatedly threatened to break the cycle of tyranny for the 20 years that have passed since.
This will be Lámh Dhearg’s sixth county final appearance in that time, though their closest brush with the trophy was 14 years ago in Casement Park when Kevin Murray sneaked a last-minute goal home to draw the sides level before the final whistle rescued St Gall’s.
There’s a striking similarity between that and the ’98 final, when Enda McAtamney’s attempt at a late equaliser against Cargin came down off the post into the hands of Brendan Mackin, who drilled a winning injury-time goal.
Their last county final appearance was five years ago under Gearoid Adams, but they have spent much of the time since waiting for a successful run of minor and under-21 teams to bear fruit.
Plenty of that St John’s success came at the expense of Lámh Dhearg, but that’s only one side of a psychological battle that seems fairly even heading in. The Hannahstown men having had more vast experience of county final day is the leveller.
For them, there are still two survivors from that day in 2003, and both are playing key roles.
Paddy Cunningham might not burn men for pace now the way he once would have, but he is still their go-to man for scores and is a hugely reliable free-taker. His 1-7 against Creggan carried their scoring tally.
Michael Herron’s role has changed and he is now the orchestrator of all things defensive. Given that St John’s bring Luke Peden out from corner-forward as their sweeper, it’s probable that Herron will operate as the Lámhs’ full-time spare man.
In Matt Fitzpatrick, St John’s have arguably the outstanding player in Antrim football. His alternation between full-forward and centre-half is something Lámh Dhearg will need to be ready for, with Aaron McAufield and Declan Lynch set to share the man-marking duties.
Even without Brian Neeson, who has missed the whole season through suspension, Paddy McBride and brothers Ciaran and Conor Johnston – perhaps better known for their hurling exploits – will have enough about them to keep Mairtin Lynch’s defence honest.
With question marks over their full-back line, Lámh Dhearg will hope for a similar midfield dominance to that which they enjoyed against Creggan.
The Kickham’s simply couldn’t deal with the combination of Donal Nugent’s sheer size and physical power, and the athleticism of Pearse Fitzsimons, he of Frank’s lineage.
What could particularly trouble Paddy Nugent in terms of nullifying his son Donal’s influence for the opposition will be the absence of the suspended Seamus McDonagh, who would have been ideally suited to the task.
The Murray brothers and Paddy Cunningham are the primary threats in attack. While Cunningham hit a big tally against Creggan and Ryan Murray was an effective ball-winner, it was in curtailing Conor Murray that the unsolvable problem lay.
Both have shown an ability to go to the well, with Lámh Dhearg recovering from a 2-1 blitz in the opening three minutes by St Gall’s. If anything was going to test their mettle, that was it, and they came back to win by four.
But likewise St John’s, who had a test that was different and the same. They had Cargin put away more than enough times over two games but the champions kept coming back. Salvaged a draw twice, the second sending it to leg-sapping extra-time.
That will only have been seven days ago when Eamon McAuley throws the ball in at what is likely to be a busy and atmospheric Glenavy.
25 years after their last one, despite the baggage in finals of the senior and the St John’s variety, you just sense that Lámh Dhearg might just have enough to squeeze across the line first.