Kevin Madden: Three sides leading the way in chase for Ulster Club title
COUNTY titles were handed out in Antrim, Derry, Armagh and Donegal last Sunday.
Almost a week on and the focus is starting to turn to the Ulster Club Senior Football Championship.
There will be real optimism surfacing across the province that 2016 will see a new winner of the Seamus McFerran Cup emerge. Especially when you consider that 11 of the last 12 Ulster Club titles were won by teams that didn’t manage to get through their County Championship in 2016. Crossmaglen (8), St Gall’s (2) and Ballinderry (1) are all gone.
No team from Fermanagh or Cavan has ever won the Ulster Club SFC title and I don’t expect this to change in 2016. As the first round draws closer, I can make a case for three teams, with one in particular leading the pack.
It just happens that they are the only club represented that have won the Ulster Club on a previous occasion. So let’s have a look at who the serious contenders are.
What Slaughtneil have achieved as a club over the last three years has been nothing short of remarkable. I couldn’t possibly attempt to list the honours they have won for fear of understating it - three consecutive senior football championships and four-in-a-row in senior hurling. That doesn’t even take into account various minor, reserve, U21 or camogie titles.
Their football journey began in 2014 as they battled their way through a very competitive Derry championship. As manager of Dungiven that year, I was involved in three games against them in the championship, one going to extra-time in round two, the others a semi-final and a replay.
At half-time in the drawn semi-final, Dungiven were seven points up but playing against a strong breeze in the second half. Halfway through that second period, Mark Craig thumped the underside of the bar with a rasper of a shot which would have definitely put their lights out. I think it would have put nine points between the teams.
On the video replay you could see the white paint rise up as half the ball nestled on the line the other half over it. No goal was the correct decision, so the comeback was still on for them.
They went on to draw the game before winning the replay fairly comfortably. In the final they came up against a talented Ballinderry Shamrocks team on the verge of a historic four in-a-row.
The Shamrocks were a single point up going into injury time, until Gerald Bradley’s controversial goal snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Against all the odds, they came from the brink in other games against Omagh to win Ulster and then Austin Stacks to set up a date with Corofin in the All-Ireland Club final.
You could be forgiven for thinking that I am making the case that Mickey Moran’s men were lucky that year, but that isn’t my intention. Yes, they got the rub of the green in games, but the point I am making is that they never know when they were beaten.
When you chase lost causes, so-called ‘luck’ becomes easier to find. They stay loyal to the game plan, loyal to the values of the club and they are an extremely well-disciplined outfit both on and off the field.
ON Sunday night the team arrived back at their clubrooms to a large crowd of very proud supporters. But for at least 10 players that’s where the celebrations ended as they headed straight to the ice baths in Toome before making their way home afterwards.
Those dual players had no time to bask in the glory of three in-a-row as they endeavoured to get their bodies right for the Ulster hurling final this weekend. After they won Derry in 2014 and again in 2015 many were writing Slaughtneil off as an aging team coming to the end of their most successful era.
This year, they romped through Derry with ease and they have actually introduced six new players to their starting team from two years ago. The average age profile of the starting 15 is only around 24.
For me, they are the team to beat in this year’s Ulster Club and as the competition progresses they certainly will have the panel to exercise that much needed strength in depth.
After getting thumped by 18 points by the Emmet’s at the same stage last year, Fermanagh’s representatives Derrygonnelly will be determined to put up a better show in round one. But I don’t see them making up the ground to trouble Slaughtneil who, for me, look well placed to go the whole way.
Antrim champions Cargin are dark horses in this year’s competition and only a few are giving them a chance. The bookies have them as 12/1 outsiders which are pretty generous odds. I feel they will have enough to get past whoever comes through this weekend’s Tyrone final.
The greater recovery time and the experience of last year will stand them in good stead. Having watched all three teams, I think Cargin will have the edge on either Coalisland or Killyclogher, particularly in the forward department.
In last year’s game with Crossmaglen they were more than a match, but inexperience cost them. A year on, they look better placed to give it a go. Their defence is littered with players who have inter-county experience and they have a formidable midfield.
But perhaps what makes them most dangerous is the number of potential match-winners in their forward line.
Cargin look capable of making a real assault on Ulster, with a potential semi-final clash between them and Slaughtneil a mouthwatering prospect. Slaughtneil have arguably the meanest defence in the competition, but Cargin have the forward line to trouble them. If the tie materialises, it will be fascinating to see how that pans out.
On the other side of the draw we have contender number three. Having already taken out Scotstown, Kilcoo have to be fancied as a good bet to reach the final.
If previous experience in the competition is an advantage, then they are the best placed team as they represent Down for the fifth year on the trot. Glenswilly and Maghery will present tough challenges, so a tricky path awaits.
Any team that beats the team who beat Crossmaglen must be respected. I’m sure there were emotional scenes in Maghery on Sunday night as they won their first ever senior championship, but I feel that a county title will be their limit this year.
In terms of the Ulster Club, Kilcoo have been threatening to make the breakthrough for a number of years now and this time they look ready to go right to the final.