Cargin's freshness may edge them past Lamh Dhearg in Antrim SFC Final
Antrim Senior Football Championship final; Cargin v Lámh Dhearg (Corrigan Park, 3.30pm Sunday)
AFTER 14 games in what was predicted to be the most wide-open Antrim Senior Football Championship for many years, it all comes down to the past two winners at Corrigan Park tomorrow to see who will be crowned champions for 2019.
Defending champions, Cargin took a more straightforward path to tomorrow's decider with a quarter-final win over Rossa before delivering a dominant display against St Gall's in the semi-final to cement their dominance over the old rivals in recent years.
While Rossa gave them problems in their opener, the Erin's Own men did enough to advance and stepped it up another notch against St Gall's when they were in total control throughout despite being without the suspended Gerard McCann, who returns tomorrow.
Another boost for Damian Cassidy's charges has been the return of Kevin O'Boyle, who lined out in the semi-final having been sidelined with a groin injury since last year's final.
The former county captain's presence is a huge shot in the arm for the Toome outfit and he forms part of a defence full of household names including Justin Crozier, Tony Scullion, and James Laverty.
While in defence and midfield Cargin have a familiar look, they have had a number of new faces in attack over the past couple of seasons.
Tomás McCann remains the focal point, but Jamie Gribbin and Ciaran Bradley have slotted in well, while Pat Shivers - who will play in the minor game - could still come in at some stage.
The champions have had two weeks to ready themselves for this final but they only learned their opponents on Monday night when Lámh Dhearg finally joined them after their semi-final trilogy against Portglenone.
However, Cassidy doesn't buy into the notion that the longer break is an advantage to his side: "You can’t create those scenarios on the training pitch where you have to make good decisions under the pressure of championship football," he said.
“I have an acute insight into how that can benefit a team and Lámh Dhearg are well placed in terms of preparation coming into this game - you couldn’t have a better situation.
“If I had the choice, I’d take their route to the final without any shadow of a doubt. Don’t underestimate the games and conditions they’ve had. It will have had a massive impact on their team."
Those three games have had a massive impact on the Red Hands, however, as they lost Pearse Fitzsimons to a likely long-term knee injury.
Monday's second replay in Ballymena will have taken quite a bit out of the 2017 winners, especially given the heavy conditions, but the prospect of a return to the final ought to give them the boost they need to dig deep one more time.
There is also the fact that Cargin dethroned them last year after a quarter-final replay if any extra motivation were needed, but perhaps those three semi-final games will have galvanized them and instilled a sense of destiny.
Not that this is all they bring to the table: with the pace of Ben Rice, workrate of Kevin Quinn and Declan Lynch, plus the class of Paddy Cunningham, Conor Murray and Ryan Murray in attack, there's plenty to give them cause for confidence going in.
The three games against Portglenone have almost defined their run to the final, but the comprehensive victory over Creggan in the last eight following a routine win against Ahoghill has set-up the Red Hands well for tomorrow and while manager Mairtín Lynch acknowledges tired bodies will take the field, he feels the mental resolve of his players gives them every chance.
"We know that Cargin have been sitting, waiting on us, but we'll do our best to get everyone patched up and ready," he said.
"Cargin aren't county champions for nothing and we know we're up against it. We know we've a real battle ahead, but there is real character in this team.
"It will be a difficult job because they're a skilful team full of county players and immense talent, so we'll just do our best against them."
Cargin will move the ball through hands to try and create the openings for scores, while Lámh Dhearg will be happy to hit them quickly on the break when turnovers arise.
It's an intriguing clash of styles and one that can deliver a hugely entertaining game, but the sense is that down the stretch, Cargin's freshness may see them home.