Watertight Slaughtneil to shut out Nemo Rangers
AIB All-Ireland Club SFC semi-final: Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) v Nemo Rangers (Cork) (Saturday, 4.30pm, Portlaoise, live on TG4)
THERE would be no more fitting way for Slaughtneil to complete their long ascent towards an All-Ireland than by overcoming Corofin on St Patrick’s Day, but they have a job on their hands early this evening to make sure they get there first.
The Emmet’s have grown with every passing game since they suffered the first of their two final defeats, just shy of three years ago now.
Throughout their run to completing four-in-a-row in Derry and back-to-back successes in Ulster in 2017, they have looked a better, more rounded side than at any time in Mickey Moran’s tenure.
Take that the autumn gone was the first in which they’d experienced any kind of untimely injury ‘crisis’, for want of a better word. Meehaul McGrath, Paul Bradley and Cormac O’Doherty all suffered injuries during the Ulster campaign.
And yet they patched it up to win titanic tussles with Kilcoo and Omagh, and showed their real strength in that classic semi-final with Kilcar.
The healing of those injuries will have a bigger impact on the All-Ireland stage. They feel Sé McGuigan is good to go after the hamstring injury that knocked him out of the hurlers’ defeat to Na Piarsaigh two weeks ago.
Cormac O’Doherty played in that game after a similar strain but it was hard to ascertain his sharpness on a day where his role was deeper than usual and largely restricted to free-taking.
They have grown into a hugely important pair for Slaughtneil, with their ball-winning prowess and unselfishness to hand off underpinning the entire gameplan. If one or both is not fully fit, it will cause them a problem.
Nemo had their own attacking worry after the Munster final, with Paul Kerrigan having suffered minor cruciate damage at the end of an impressive win over reigning All-Ireland champions Dr Crokes.
He has played in two recent challenge games and is set to go at the heart of an attack that includes Cavan native Paddy Gumley on the edge of the square.
Goals have been a speciality of the Cork city men on their run, scoring 20 of them across their nine games to this point.
And that’s only half the story, given that they finished that Munster final with 0-16 when it could very, very easily have been 6-16, only for some superb goalkeeping and last-ditch defending by Crokes.
But of course, the metal rod holding together all that Slaughtneil have done in the past four years is their prevention of goals.
Across 17 games in the provincial and All-Ireland series’ since 2014, they have conceded just seven goals, and incredibly just that one Colm Cooper goal in last year’s decider from their last 10.
Antoin McMullan has had a stunning season in goals, which has kept the defence from springing an odd leak, but no matter how good the opposition attack, the jury can only base its verdict on the evidence in front of it, and that is that Slaughtneil simply do not concede goals to anyone.
And with all due respect to Nemo’s win over Dr Crokes in November, Pat O’Shea’s side looked a very tired one, yet managed to stay in it to the point where they could have been level heading into the final quarter.
They should have buried by that stage, with those six botched goal chances the blot on an otherwise impressive attacking display by Larry Kavanagh’s side, who are back on the national stage for the first time in 10 years.
Nemo did cut them open at will down the centre of the defence and if there is one thing Slaughtneil can be susceptible to, it’s how bare their lack of an orthodox sweeper at times leaves them when facing pace and power around half-forward. That’s where that one goal they conceded came from, when Daithi Casey spun off Paul McNeill and created an overlap that Colm Cooper made the most of.
But Nemo are likely to afford them Francis McEldowney sitting free by dropping Colin O’Brien into their own defence and freeing up Stephen Cronin to sit.
The ace in the Nemo attack is Barry O’Driscoll, whose composure, pace and vision will be what Mickey Moran makes the starting point for his man-marking assignments.
There are similarities between this conundrum and that of last year’s decider, where Slaughtneil had to move pieces they don’t ordinarily like to, and ended up with McNeill at centre-back. That cost them when he was outmuscled once by Daithi Casey and there was no cover behind.
Paul Kerrigan will cause trouble in spurts but Chrissy McKaigue could do damage going the other way off him. That is the likely pairing, with McNeill or Karl McKaigue likely to pick up O’Driscoll.
Brendan Rogers will match up to Luke Connolly, who took the headlines with his free-taking masterclass and a couple of nice scores from play in the Munster final.
One thing Nemo did do that day was press high up the pitch. That is often a recipe for disaster against Slaughtneil, who are so good in possession that they will find the gaps and exploit them.
If you base your judgement on their respective performances against Dr Crokes six months apart, you would give a tentative nod to the seven-time All-Ireland champions.
But the circumstances of both games were very different. And if you go on all the other available evidence, Slaughtneil will win this with three to spare.