GAA Football

Magherafelt Rossas to dictate terms and upset the odds against Glen

Emmett McGuckin scored the Magherafelt goal in their first round win over county champions Eoghan Rua, on which they've built to reach a first county final since 1983. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

O’Neills Derry SFC final: Glen v Magherafelt (tomorrow, 4pm, Celtic Park)

OCTOBER days don’t happen by accident.

This has been the longest of times in coming for both Magherafelt and Glen. For the Rossas, 36 years. For the Watties, their entire history.

All of the work that they’ve put in over the last 10, 15, 20 years, all the accumulation of All-Ireland Féiles and U16 championships and minor titles and Ulster clubs and all the rest, it was all about this day.

Dealing with the day will be crucial. Hype has built to unprecedented levels around both towns. That’s grand the week of the game, but who’ll be the side that lands to Celtic Park too early tomorrow, does too much in the warm-up, gets too emotional in the changing room? Those are the county final unknowns they both face.

It tells you something about how far off the radar a Glen-Magherafelt final was that they headed into this year’s opening round with the punters turning against both.

Magherafelt were facing the reigning county champions, Eoghan Rua, while Glen were in against an out-of-sorts-but-championship-team-nonetheless Loup having suffered a heavy loss to Slaughtneil in the league final.

A man down and a point down early on, Glen settled and produced a brilliant 40 minutes that turned their season very quickly back around.

Magherafelt held on and held on in the game against Eoghan Rua and when the one real goal chance presented itself, Jared Monaghan squared for Emmett McGuckin to palm home and snatch victory.

Despite that, it’s Glen whose bus will turn out on to the Glenshane Road early tomorrow afternoon with the favourites’ tag hanging off it.

It was earned by their stunning semi-final win over Slaughtneil. They’d been questioned over their ability to bring a big performance to a big game, and they answered.

No team had scored three goals in a game against the Emmet’s since the start of the Mickey Moran reign in 2014. Indeed, a side famed for their defensive solidity going back to 2004, it’s hard to think of a time it’s happened in the last 15 years.

Every time Glen ran at them, they looked like scoring a goal. They could have had at least two more.

Equally, it was just a mad game. Slaughtneil could easily have had four goals of their own, including two in the final ten minutes that were cleared off the line with the ‘keeper beaten.

And Glen’s defensive performance was, in the main, excellent. They had their work done on the Slaughtneil players they wanted to stop from shooting, especially Shane McGuigan, and they worked like dogs to keep him off his left foot.

The Watties even survived the loss of full-back Ryan Dougan, who’d been doing a great job on McGuigan, to an early second half black card.

It’s in their defence that they’ll have the greatest confidence of victory. That hasn’t always been the case and they have at times left themselves very exposed at the back, but the individual displays of Oisin Hegarty, Ryan Dougan and Connor Carville especially in the semi-final will have swelled their levels of belief.

Glen were, however, aided by Slaughtneil’s defensive match-ups not working. They moved their team around to try and counter Glen, and it didn’t pay off.

Magherafelt are coming to play a counter-attacking game. It’s one that Glen haven’t faced the like of yet this summer, and that will be something the Rossas will have zoned in on.

Their plan will be to knock the Glen attack out of their comfort zone. In the likes of the experienced Darren O’Neill and the emerging Conor McCluskey, they have man markers they feel will cope.

They’ll drop back behind the ball, with Jared Monaghan sitting deep in front of his full-back line, and they will aim to force Glen to shoot from positions they don’t want to be shooting from.

Also, the fact that the game is on the tighter, and better, Celtic Park surface rather than Owenbeg plays into Magherafelt’s hands.

There are few grounds in Ireland at which the wind is so reliable a factor. Whipping off the River Foyle down over the terracing at the Brandywell End, it tends to have its say on most games in Celtic Park.

Of the last 10 Derry finals, seven have been won by the team leading at half-time, and two of the three exceptions were settled by decisive goals in the final four minutes.

If there’s one thing Magherafelt will want to have learned from recent deciders, it’s that the team that comes to lock the gates and play on the counter ends up usually being the ones with regret.

Lavey played within themselves for 30 minutes last year and were six down to Eoghan Rua before throwing the shackles off and cutting the gap back to two late on before time beat them.

Eoghan Rua themselves were guilty of exactly the same in the 2015 decider with Slaughtneil, where they were six down and then came out against the wind, dominating the last quarter and losing by a single point.

There’s nothing worse to come from a county final with than an empty pocket and a fistful of regret. In terms of their gameplan, if it isn’t working, they need to at least have a cut.

Yet there’s a fair chance that 14 points will be enough to win tomorrow’s final. It won’t be particularly open. Magherafelt will be confident that their plan will do what they want it to do, and it’ll be up to Glen to find the answers.

One of those answers may be AFL star Conor Glass, who reportedly trained with the squad last week and was included in the club’s pen pics for the final.

It’s the most unique final in a generation, and the most unpredictable for that. If you look at the knowns, then you’d go with Glen. They had the big semi-final win, they have the marginally stronger pedigree.

If you try and second-guess the unknowns, it levels out a bit.

Magherafelt have come in under the radar. They’ve found it easier to escape the hype.

They come with a relative lack of pressure on, given the nature of their narrow semi-final win over Banagher.

Their set-up will dictate a lot of this game’s terms.

The feeling has sneaked up all week. Magherafelt to upset the odds and win by two.

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