VIDEO: Crossmaglen Rangers and Bellaghy Wolfe Tones set to battle it out for Ulster Minor honours
FonaCAB Ulster Club MF Champions' Tournament final: Today January 1 2019: Bellaghy v Crossmaglen at St Paul's GAC, Shaw's Rd (1.00)
Former winners of the Jimmy McConville Cup, Bellaghy Wolfe Tones and Crossmaglen Rangers, clash in this season's final of the FonaCAB Ulster Club Minor Football champions' tournament at St Paul's in the annual New Year's Day teenage test decider with this battle set to be a cracker.
Both teams came through nail biting finishes to their semi-finals with Bellaghy squeezing out St Eunan's Letterkenny and Crossmaglen edging past Ballyholland Harps in the pulsating closing minutes of the penultimate games.
The Derry champions looked to be on their way to an easy victory when they were nine points ahead at half-time but had to put in a blazing finish to snatch victory by a single point.
“The final nine minutes of the game were invaluable experience for our lads,” recalls manager Damian Cassidy. “They had to come from two points down to get the win. It is the sort of thing you cannot plan on the training pitch. They had to sort it out themselves.
“You could look at the match as the glass was half-full or half-empty,” he says.
“We won the game with a great finish but we missed four goal chances during the match. “We were nine points up at half time but two down with nine minutes to go and the boys had to find a way of winning the game. They did that and they proved they had the resolve to win it.
“On the way to the semi-finals, we had easier finishes and, overall, easier matches but the semi-final against St Eunan's was the most valuable result of them all. It was a great preparation for the final which I expect to be a super game. Both teams play an attacking brand of football.
“It should be a great game for the spectators and I expect there will be a very big crowd there.”
Crossmaglen, too, had their anxious moment in the victory over Ballyholland but it is noteworthy that they came through the test without two of their usual players.
For different reasons, Darragh O'Callaghan and midfielder Shane Morgan were unavailable but manager Stephen Kernan is fulsome in his praise of the replacements Caolan Dooley and Orin McKeown, brother of senior player Paul McKeown.
“They were both excellent and that gave me a bit of a headache in picking the team for the final,” admits manager Kernan. “They are both under-16 players and that was their first start in such a big game. It is a good problem to have, of course. It is nice to know that there are players in the squad who are very capable of stepping into the team when needed to.”
For the Cross manager it was a case of having to handle the situation carefully with the missing men from the semi-final available again. In the circumstances, he will not finally name his line-out until just before today's final.
Kernan is also full of praise for the Rangers' opponents. He rates Bellaghy very highly and agrees with the Wolfe Tones' manager Damian Cassidy that the final should be a cracker.
“Bellaghy play a fast brand of football, getting the ball in to their forwards. They have been racking up incredible scores and that is something that we have try and stop.
“It was a boost to our lads that they were able to withstand the loss of two regular players and win the semi-final. The work rate of the team was incredible and, whoever lines out for us, the team will still stick to the same plans as before.”
One player who can be very sure of starting for Crossmaglen is goalkeeper Stephen Morgan who had a massive say in his team's defeat of Ballyholland. The Bellaghy boys may well have to rely on their point scoring abilities as Morgan gave an assured 'man-of-the-match' performance in the semi-final.
Classic New Year's Day Final
‘This Final brings back childhood memories to me,’’ - Bellaghy manager Kieran Glackin looking forward to renewing old rivalries on New Year’s Day when his talented young players takes on Crossmaglen.
Bellaghy and Crossmaglen met in the Ulster Senior Club Finals of 1996 and 1998.
‘‘Some of their fathers played in those battles,’’ says Kieran.
The Derry and Armagh champions will meet in the Final of the fonacab Ulster Minor Tournament, supported by Belfast City Council, at the St Paul's club in west Belfast at 1pm.
Video by Mark and Jerome Quinn.