Loughgiel have their best chance yet of toppling familiar foes Slaughtneil in Ulster decider
2020 Ulster Senior Camogie Club Championship final: Slaughtneil (Derry) v Loughgiel (Antrim) (tomorrow, All Saints Ballymena, 1pm)
BY the middle of January, Loughgiel and Slaughtneil will have contested seven consecutive Ulster senior club titles. This is the 2020 version, the sixth in the series, and both teams have also won their respective championships in the 2021 season and therefore will meet again in the new year.
Had the 2020 provincial and All-Ireland championships been completed 12 months ago, there is quite a strong possibility that Slaughtneil would have struggled to retain their Ulster title.
They had been taken to a replay by Swatragh in the Derry final in the autumn of 2020. But somehow they found a way to survive in the drawn game and then retain the title in the replay. A lot has changed for them since.
At the start of this year, the management team that had taken them to four consecutive All-Ireland finals had stepped down. They went through a couple of versions in an effort to find a replacement, even changing again during the Derry championship, which they retained a lot easier than was anticipated.
The return of Tina Bradley and Therese Mellon certainly consolidated their campaign this year and they really impressed in the defeat of Ballinascreen in the county final eight weeks ago, despite the absence of Louise Dougan who had redefined the role of sweeper over the past couple of years.
Aoife Ní Chaiside picked up the Dougan role with Cliodhna Ní Mhianáin operating as a regular centre-half back.
Again it seemed difficult to break down that defence while Bradley and Shannon Graham did the usual prompting from the centre of the field with the Mellon cousins breaking the tackles and taking the scores.
However, Loughgiel look to be in their best form ever and the return of Racquel Murphy to the attack has really helped their hunt for goals. Murphy claimed a hat-trick in both the Antrim semi-final and final and her mobility caused the early problems in each game that effectively put them in charge.
The Shamrocks had been beaten by Dunloy twice this season, once in the league and then later on during the group section of the championship. However, when it came to the winner-takes-all game in both league and championship, Loughgiel were clinical and nailed victory.
The Antrim final win was achieved without the talented Róisín McCormick who had to leave the pitch injured after just seven minutes. I understand that she has not completed a full training session in the interim and is a doubt for a starting jersey.
Her role this year has been more as a centre-forward where she had room to use her pace and run at defences. Her replacement Anna Connolly is also very quick although she tends to off-load a lot of ball for others to take their scores.
Elsewhere, Loughgiel look to have changed tactically with Lucia McNaughton playing in a much deeper role than we have seen her up until now, tucked in behind her captain Maeve Connolly who has been given the freedom to push forward and take scores.
Loughgiel had eight starters for Antrim in Croke Park in September, three more came in as subs and there were a further four players in the panel. The county team's success and the experience those players gained must leave the Shamrocks in the best position they have been in for an Ulster club final.
Slaughtneil on the other hand are a formidable outfit – even with the changes they have endured this season. They have a proven team formation and do not concede scores regularly.
I expect another intriguing battle for this title. Slaughtneil have had the mental capacity as well as the tactical nuance to win this type of game in the past whether against Loughgiel or further on at All-Ireland level.
But the Shamrocks have their best chance in recent times to topple them.