Cavan Gaels' attack to prove too sharp for Lámh Dhearg
AIB Ulster Senior Club Football Championship quarter-final: Cavan Gaels (Cavan) v Lámh Dhearg (Antrim) (Sunday, Kingspan Breffni, 2.30pm)
WHEN Michéal Lyng slotted the ball beneath Ronan Gallagher in the early moments of an Ulster club quarter-final nine years ago, little did he know the unwanted history he’d be making.
Now Cavan Gaels captain, and the holder of nine county titles, that goal in Casement Park back on November 2, 2008 was the deciding score in a 1-7 to 0-7 win over St Gall’s.
It was a win that boosted hopes of a first ever Ulster club title for club and county, but Seanie Johnston’s early injury in the semi-final undermined them as they collapsed in the second half against Ballinderry.
And since that day in Belfast, no Cavan club has won a game in the Ulster Club SFC. This will be the ninth attempt since, a fourth by the Gaels themselves, and represents as good an opportunity as any might get.
With Crossmaglen banished early and these new winners from Antrim that will travel to Cavan tomorrow joining Derrygonnelly and Armagh Harps in the top half of the draw, there will be serious ambitions in all four camps about reaching a provincial final.
The Gaels are the most experienced side on this end and there is a feeling that it is a last chance for some of their elder statesmen, such as Lyng and Johnston.
The latter is favourite to be named player of the year following a superb season in club colours, one in which he has been tormenting defences like the man of old.
And this has been some season for a Gaels side rejuvenated under Jason O’Reilly. They won every game bar one in league and championship, the exception being a dead-rubber draw with Cootehill in their final league game.
Their average margin of victory in the championship has been ten points, and included victories over their three major rivals – Castlerahan (five points), Kingscourt (eight points) and Ramor United (ten points).
A notable feature of their play has been a ruthlessness in front of goal. Jason O’Reilly was an ace goalscorer in his day and they have very deliberately set about looking for green flags from very early in games.
32 majors in 18 games, and only three blanks – two against an overtly defensive Castlerahan and the other in that dead-rubber with Cootehill – is a serious attacking record.
Johnston and Martin Dunne are the chief goal-getters, although Dunne has been relatively quiet through the championship campaign.
The Lámh Dhearg defence will have its work cut out to keep it tight enough that they will allow their own bright attacking lights to shine.
Aaron McAufield will pick up Johnston and it’s a toss-up between Paddy Mervyn and Marc McGarry to go on Dunne and Paul O’Connor.
They’ll be allowed to have Michael Herron as pretty much a full-time sweeper given that Kevin Meehan performs that role at the other end, and both men have been hugely influential in their clubs’ success this season.
Lámh Dhearg were the side that attacked the Antrim final, and they got their rewards in the end. St John’s looked to have a more dangerous attack on paper but they played with just one man in the Lámhs’ half at times, undoing themselves.
Mairtín Lynch’s men have attacking qualities that will trouble the Gaels. Conor Murray is in superb form at half-forward, so good that he may merit the attentions of Niall Murray, as much as the hosts would like not to have to move him out from full-back.
He is still more likely to pick up the younger Murray sibling Ryan, who had a quiet Antrim decider but can be a considerable threat around the goal.
Paddy Cunningham’s craft and finishing ability is well-renowned and in all, Lámh Dhearg’s strength seems to be in playing on the front foot. Attacking wing-backs Declan Lynch and Brendan McComb were superb against St John’s, the former also getting the better of Matthew Fitzpatrick defensively.
Eoin McKeown’s pace and Ciaran Flaherty’s vision are another set of attributes, and how they unpicked St John’s massed defence will have been a valuable lesson against what is sure to be something similar.
And so it could come down to their contrasting midfield styles. Domhnall Nugent offers a physical strength in there for Lámh Dhearg that Cavan Gaels don’t have, and aerially they might struggle with Pearse Fitzsimons too.
But Ciaran Flynn has been the find of the season for the Breffni champions. Largely a reserve forward in the past, he has been moulded into a ‘keeper at the age of 32 and his laser-like restarts have been a massive factor all year.
They will try to use the energy of Paul Graham and Robert Maloney-Derham to pull the Lámhs’ midfield around.
And while the Antrim champions may not want to think of this as bonus territory – “I don’t want to be a team of tourists going down to Breffni and taking selfies” said skipper John Finucane – winning in Ulster won’t have been as high on their list of priorities as it has been on Cavan Gaels’.
Expect the Gaels to take the first step with four or five to spare – and who knows where it could end up from there.