Composed Slaughtneil should deny Cavan Gaels a first Ulster SFC crown
Ulster Club SFC Final: Cavan Gaels v Robert Emmet's, Slaughtneil (Derry) (tomorrow, Athletic Grounds, Armagh, 3pm)
TURNING the old political jibe into sporting praise, Slaughtneil is a modest club with little to be modest about.
Remarkable, the Emmet's are on the cusp of an astonishing 'double treble', having already retained the Ulster camogie and hurling crowns.
Most observers – including this one – anticipate that they'll complete that sextet of success against Cavan Gaels.
The perception is that Slaughtneil have done all the hard work, having already beaten Kilcoo, Omagh, and Kilcar en route to this decider.
However, one of the many reasons for Slaughtneil's amazing, ongoing success is that they believe more in perspiration than perception. They don't stop working, they won't stop working until the Seamus McFerran Cup is back in their hands again on Sunday evening.
That very modesty drives them on. They well remember how long and hard they've sweated for success in all codes, how often they fell short, so they're not going relax and rest on their laurels.
Omagh manager Paddy Crozier, a perceptive south Derryman himself, labelled Slaughtneil 'the new Crossmaglen' after their tight quarter-final tussle.
The Emmet's have that same voracious appetite as the Rangers to keep collecting trophies.
No club has retained the Ulster Club SFC title other than the south Armagh outfit since Burren did so in 1988.
Slaughtneil, though, will have noticed the shock fall of Dublin champions St Vincent's in Leinster, against Wicklow's Rathnew.
Older heads may recall how Cross' struggled to hold on the title in the 1999 final against a side from an unfancied county, namely Fermanagh's Enniskillen Gaels.
Like Cross' in their pomp, Slaughtneil have shown an ability to win whatever way is required, the low(-scoring) road or the high(-scoring) road.
Like Cross' at their best, there will be no complacency, no over-confidence.
Cavan Gaels have a different sort of desire, but one that will be no less than Slaughtneil's.
They're back in an Ulster Final after a 40-year gap, after embarking on their 13th provincial campaign, and the 10th in this century.
They're the first club from the Breffni county to reach this stage in 22 years, since Bailieboro lost out to Mullaghbawn of Armagh.
Indeed the only other Cavan clubs to reach the Ulster SFc final are Kingscourt (twice, in 1987 and 1990) and Crosserlough (1969).
In short, these Gaels will make themselves heroes and legends if they can bring the cup to Cavan for the first time ever. They've been the dominant club in Cavan football since their formation 60 years ago, but an Ulster title would top all their 'domestic' glories.
Yet to do so they'll have to defeat the best side in Ulster in recent years.
The holders, champions in 2014, only Scotstown (two years ago) and Crossmaglen have got the better of the Emmet's in provincial football combat.
Few clubs have had as tricky a path to the final as Slaughtneil this year, starting away in the preliminary round, facing the champs from Down, Tyrone, and Donegal, all quality sides.
The only caveat expressed about Slaughtneil as they progressed past Kilcoo and Omagh was that they weren't scoring highly, with tallies of only 1-11 and 0-10.
BOOM! They rattled in 2-17 in the semi-final against Kilcar, who had restricted Naomh Conaill, Glenties to a mere four points in the Donegal decider and held Scotstown to 1-6 in Clones, despite conceding that goal very early on.
What was even more eye-catching about Slaughtneil's semi-final scoring was their efficiency, their accuracy, with only two wides registered, both late in the game. Well, eye-catching but not unusual. The Emmet's are rarely wasteful, always seeking to make the best use of the ball, rather than shooting wildly or passing hopefully.
Still, Cavan Gaels will have a certain confidence in themselves too, and rightly so. They're unbeaten in 22 League and Championship matches this year.
The finalists' defensive records are similar, the Gaels conceding 10-87 in 10 Championship games this year, an average of almost 1-9 against, Slaughtneil shipping 2-73 in seven matches, an average of more than 11 points.
Yet perhaps those goal tallies are significant.
Slaughtneil haven't conceded a single goal in Ulster, despite the quality of opposition they have faced.
Only goals – and a glut of them, five in all – got the Gaels past Derrygonnelly in their provincial semi-final replay.
Sure, Slaughtneil rode their luck at times, especially against Kilcoo and Kilcar, with the goal chances both those sides had, but neither had the killer touch to beat goalkeeper Antoin McMullan, not even from the penalty spot. Even when he was in bother team-mates helped him out.
Although their county final against Castlerahan was fairly tight, the Gaels have mostly been an attacking outfit.
So far they've notched 15-129 from 10 outings, a slightly better average return than their opponents' 10-86 from seven games, albeit against weaker opposition.
Cavan Gaels have had 11 different scorers in Ulster, and there's obvious talent in their ranks, notably up front with Seanie Johnston, Martin Dunne, and goal-grabber Paul O'Connor, while others have inter-county experience too.
The Cavan champs will probably have to go for goals again against Slaughtneil, but defence is where the Emmet's are strongest, notably with Brendan Rogers and the McKaigue brothers, Chrissy and Karl.
The challengers could go long to their talented inside trio, but the champs' defence will be well protected by experienced former county men such as Patsy Bradley and Barry McGuigan.
Manager Mickey Moran may also adopt a more cautious approach at first given that he is missing three forwards through injury – Paul Bradley, Meehaul McGrath, and Cormac O'Doherty. Yet Bradley hasn't featured at all in Ulster after an operation while the other two contributed only six points across their three provincial matches.
Besides, Slaughtneil's patient possession game involves waiting to get a player – any player – into the right position to score. Combine that with the counter-attacking and all-round footballing abilities of their backs and they've had 10 different scorers in Ulster themselves.
The Gaels have defender Levi Murphy available again after serving a one-match suspension in the semi-final replay.
Better still, skipper Micheal Lyng could start after coming off the bench for the final third of that thriller having recovered from a hamstring problem. Lyng's playmaking skills could be much-needed to create chances
It remains to be seen if their dramatic replay triumph just last Sunday has taken too much out of the Gaels or lifted them, but the sense is that the Emmet's will be fresher.
Slaughtneil have had a rare fortnight to recuperate and prepare for this final, including twice being able to watch their opponents in action.
The Gaels may well try to blow Slaughtneil away but there's always a calmness about the champions that suggests they can weather any storm, certainly within Ulster.
The holders are worth at least a modest wager to complete the double treble and have more to be modest about tomorrow.
Paths to the final:
Derry SFC first round: Slaughtneil 2-14 Swatragh 1-11
Derry SFC quarter-final: Slaughtneil 1-9 Ballinderry 0-8
Derry SFC semi-final: Slaughtneil 0-13 Glen (Maghera) 0-6
Derry SFC Final: Slaughtneil 4-12 Ballinascreen 1-11
Ulster Club SFC preliminary round: Kilcoo Eoghan Rua (Down) 0-12 Slaughtneil 1-11
Ulster Club SFC quarter-final: Slaughtneil 0-10 Omagh St Enda's (Tyrone) 0-8
Ulster Club SFC semi-final: Slaughtneil 2-17 Kilcar (Donegal) 0-17
Cavan SFC League stage, round one: Cavan Gaels 1-14 Lacken Celtic 2-7
Cavan SFC League stage, round two: Cavan Gaels 3-15 Arva 0-9
Cavan SFC League stage, round three: Cavan Gaels 2-14 Ramor United 1-7
Cavan SFC League stage, round four: Cavan Gaels 0-11 Cootehill Celtic 2-5
Cavan SFC quarter-final: Cavan Gaels 1-14 Crosserlough 3-6
Cavan SFC semi-final: Cavan Gaels 2-10 Kingscourt 0-8
Cavan SFC Final: Cavan Gaels 0-13 Castlerahan 0-8
Ulster Club SFC quarter-final: Cavan Gaels 1-19 Lamh Dhearg (Antrim) 0-10
Ulster Club SFC semi-final: Cavan Gaels 0-12 Derrygonnelly Harps (Fermanagh) 0-12 (aet)
Ulster Club SFC semi-final replay: Cavan Gaels 5-7 Derrygonnelly Harps (Fermanagh) 2-15