Antrim champions Cargin and Fermanagh's Derrygonnelly meet in first of Ulster club battles
Ulster Senior Club Football Championship quarter-final: Derrygonnelly Harps (Fermanagh) v Erin's Own Cargin (Antrim) (tomorrow, Corrigan Park, 2.30pm)
IS IT tiredness, or is it match sharpness? That's what experienced Cargin midfielder Michael McCann pondered out-loud last Saturday evening after his club had finally seen off Lamh Dhearg.
Cargin have played extra-time for two weekends in-a-row but McCann doesn't expect his club's schedule to have any effect on their performance tomorrow against a Derrygonnelly side that wrapped up their county championship with a convincing 0-10 to 1-3 win over Roslea Shamrocks way back on September 22.
However, the Ernemen have not been resting on their laurels since then. Like Cargin, the Harps have completed a league and championship double this season but, unlike Cargin, they had to turn their attention back to the league after the championship was in the bag.
After beating Roslea last month, Sean Donnelly's men went on to see off Enniskillen Gaels (semi-final) and then Ederney in the Division One decider on October 5 to wrap up their double.
So there can be absolutely no doubt that the best sides from both counties will do battle at Belfast's Corrigan Park tomorrow.
Donnelly's Derrygonnelly – five in-a-row champions in Fermanagh - didn't look to be absolutely coming down with scoring options – albeit in very testing conditions – when they won a war of attrition against a Roslea side that made life hard for them in the Erne county final.
But they were well set-up defensively and did what they needed to do to win. The Harps got numbers behind the ball when they didn't have it and then attacked with a patient hand-passing game that was focussed on releasing capable shooters Conal and Garvan Jones up front.
Veteran Kevin Cassidy remains an important steadying influence on the side around the middle third alongside Fermanagh midfield star Ryan Jones and Shane McGullion. Mickey Jones and Tiarnan Daly are the lynchpins in defence.
Full-back Daly did a good job of shackling burly full-forward Seamus Quigley in the Fermanagh county final and he'll look to do the same job on Cargin's Michael Magill – scorer of two goals last week against Lamh Dhearg – tomorrow.
Quigley did get a fisted goal in that game and Daly will find former Antrim star Magill a handful. The veteran number 14 is physical, reads the game well and is very experienced.
Alongside him is another former Antrim forward in Tomas McCann, who is quick and direct and also a good finisher. They will have emerging talents James Gribben and Ciaran Maguire for company and Cargin can also relay on the experience of Michael and Paul McCann, Kevin O'Boyle, evergreen wing-back Tony Scullion and Ciaran Close, who came off the bench to expertly score four points.
Cargin had looked under-cooked when they met Lamh Dhearg in the Antrim final first time out but they made the running for much of the replay. Manager Damian Cassidy says that double-header will have brought his players on “a mountain”.
“We will want to put our best foot forward,” said the Derry native.
“We're going to be playing at Corrigan Park which is a good pitch. We want to come out and represent Antrim, and particularly Cargin, really well.
“Those two games will bring us on a mountain. I knew the momentum that Lamh Dhearg had and the sharpness they had and the composure under pressure that had been finely tuned through all their games.
“We never got out of first gear against Rossa, we were not stretched by St Gall's so I knew we were vulnerable going into the final against Lamh Dhearg, I knew it was going to take us a while to get into it and that's how it transpired in the first half.”
Cassidy was delighted with the character his side showed to see off a dogged Lamh Dhearg who battled back four times to create a match-winning position in extra-time. But Cargin would not be denied in the second period of extra-time.
“One of the most important qualities in championship football is always having that thing inside you that just keeps you going and going and going,” said the former Derry manager.
“Not prepared to give in or submit - that resilience, that stubbornness… You have to have that in bucketfuls.”
Neither of these clubs has enjoyed regular success at provincial level and, with a quarter-final against Tyrone champions Trillick coming up, both are long odds to win this competition.
Dismiss them at your peril. Cargin gave Crossmaglen a scare in 2015 and pushed Gweedore (also eventual champions) to the pins of collars last year at Corrigan Park despite conceding three goals in a kamikaze first half spell. Meanwhile, Derrygonnelly got the better of Armagh Harps a couple of years ago and they will be determined to kick on this year.
But Cargin looked a solid, well-organised unit last Saturday with experience, pace and quality throughout the starting 15 and strength-in-depth off the bench too. With home advantage, the Antrim champions get the nod to progress to the quarter-final stage.