Another dogfight could be in store, but Cavan Gaels can edge into Ulster final eventually
AIB Ulster Club Senior Football Championship semi-final replay: Cavan Gaels (Cavan) v Derrygonnelly Harps (Fermanagh) (Sunday, 1.45pm, Clones)
AS they trudged from the field at St Tiernach’s Park last Sunday afternoon, legs weary after spending 80 minutes-plus chasing their Ulster Club dream, both sets of players had cause to curse what might have been.
When the final whistle finally sounded though, the Breffni kingpins were probably happier to hear it having soldiered with 14 men for 35 minutes, during which time they managed just a measly two points.
Manager Jason O’Reilly admitted the Gaels had turned in their worst performance of the year – and had Derrygonnelly’s normally reliable Paul Ward enjoyed a better day from frees, the Fermanagh champions would be looking ahead to a November 26 showdown with Slaughtneil.
The fear from their point of view is that they might not get those chances again, and you would have to wonder whether they have the firepower to finish the job tomorrow.
Conall Jones shot the lights out as Derrygonnelly dispatched Armagh Harps in the last eight, but was well marshalled by Niall Murray and later Barry Fortune when he was forced to come out the field to try and exert some influence.
A Kieran Donaghy-esque fetch, turn and fist pass laid on a point for Ward 19 minutes in but, a late second half free aside, the towering forward wasn’t involved as the Fermanagh men need him to be.
Defensively though, Derrygonnelly can take great heart from last week’s showing. Cavan Gaels had scored 32 goals in 16 games before their county final win over Castlerahan, and ran up a total of 1-19 against Lamh Dhearg in the Ulster quarter-final.
That total flattered the Antrim champions, as goalkeeper John Finucane denied the Gaels from four other goalscoring opportunities, while Seanie Johnston saw an effort thunder back out off the upright.
So to restrict such a potent attacking force to just 12 points in over 80 minutes of football is decent going.
Johnston has been the main man for Cavan Gaels this year but found it hard to escape the shackles of the sticky Mickey Jones last Sunday. With the 33-year-old unable to pull the strings as he had done previously, the Breffnimen were devoid of ideas at times.
Martin Dunne suffered as a result, having profited from so much of Johnston’s work against the Lamhs, while they missed the ingenuity of Michael Lyng.
The veteran forward was restricted to a six minute cameo at the end of extra-time having picked up a niggle at training the week before, but is expected to start tomorrow.
To be fair to his replacement Declan Meehan, he started well but faded out of the game as the Gaels momentum died with the 45th minute dismissal of Levi Murphy.
It is important to emphasise how big a turning point this was.
Before Murphy saw red for an ill-advised swing at Neil Gallagher, the Gaels had taken complete control – with Murphy at the centre of their dominance.
With Derrygonnelly leading by a point at half-time, Cavan Gaels blitzed them at the start of the second half, reeling off five unanswered points – two of which came from raiding wing-back Murphy - inside the first 10 minutes to move into a four point lead.
At this stage, the Fermanagh men couldn’t get out of their half. Before the match, the feeling was that if the Gaels forwards click, they would have too much for the Harps and it looked as though those predictions had come to pass.
With 40 minutes on the clock, there was only one winner.
But when Murphy departed five minutes later, the game was flipped on its head. Within six minutes Derrygonnelly had closed the gap to a point and, despite frayed nerves after three spurned frees from Ward, Conall Jones eventually converted a placed ball to send the game into extra-time.
The final 20 minutes, indeed even the 15 minutes before the end of normal time, was more a battle between two sides determined not to lose. Unfamiliar with being this deep into Ulster, that was understandable.
But, with the first game out of the way, how they will handle tomorrow’s replay? If Derrygonnelly can stay with the Cavan men as they did last week, they are in with a huge chance.
However, the warning bells sounded in that 10 minute period after half-time. Had Murphy – who is likely to be replaced by Darragh Sexton - not gone off, the Gaels would be in an Ulster final. They have proved themselves a team more comfortable leading from the front, and will be keen to get back to that position tomorrow.
It is also hard to imagine they won’t conjur up any goal chances in another 60 minutes of football, while Derrygonnelly will need to get more out of their forwards to give themselves a chance.
Another dogfight would be no surprise, especially considering the nerves on show last weekend, but you still have to suspect that Cavan Gaels have too much experience and forward power not to get the job done at the second time of asking.