Glenties to squeeze out Clontibret
AIB Ulster Club SFC semi-final: Clontibret v Naomh Conaill (tonight, 7pm, Healy Park, live on TG4)
SIX weeks ago, this looked all lined up to be someone’s shot at revenge against Gaoth Dobhair, be it Crossmaglen or Scotstown.
Instead, it’s their respective, unexpected conquerors that stand within an hour of the Ulster final.
Naomh Conaill having been tagged in to replace the reigning provincial champions is a shot of strength. For decades, Donegal champions couldn’t get the monkey off their backs, none of them able to emulate St Joseph’s from the early 1970s by winning Ulster.
But Gaoth Dobhair broke the door down 12 months ago, and none of their Donegal rivals are better equipped to step into the winner’s enclosure behind them than the Glenties.
Their forays into Ulster have been unfortunate rather than poor. When they met Trillick four years ago, they lost Dermot Molloy to injury and Anthony Thompson to a red card inside the first 15 minutes, yet still managed to claw a six-point half-time deficit back to two.
In 2010, they reached the Ulster final, but didn’t have the goals in them to match the cool finishes provided by Jamie Clarke and Oisin McConville which ultimately separated the sides.
Anthony Thompson, Leo McLoone, Dermot Molloy, Brendan McDyer, Eoin Waide, Marty Boyle and Stephen McGrath all survive nine years on, while current boss Martin Regan played at midfield that afternoon.
To try and argue that they’re standing in last chance saloon might be foolish, given that they’ve listened to that since 2015 but just keep coming back again and again, losing back-to-back county finals before this year.
But in terms of an Ulster title, it’s hard to imagine that they have too many shots left at it.
Victory over Castlerahan in the quarter-final underlined just how much of what they do is second nature. While they would argue that they’re not a defensive team, what they are is exceptionally good at defending.
They drank from the Wednesday night through to the Friday morning before that Castlerahan game, but showed in two blistering spells at the start of either half the level of quality they possess.
The onus is on Clontibret to find ways around them. John McEntee will content himself with the idea that the Glenties are unlikely to run up a huge score.
What will have occupied the mind of the Monaghan champions’ manager over the last two weeks is the way in which his side can find enough scores of their own to win the game.
Their attacking play in the first half of the win over Crossmaglen was at times excellent, and in the second half it broke down just at the wrong second on a few chances when there were goals there for them.
But they were playing against a side that trusted its most basic instincts. Naomh Conaill will not allow them anywhere near the same amount of space.
Take the impact of Michael P O’Dowd, who was superb in the quarter-final. When he turned and ran at Cross, he only had to beat his own man, and he was off into an ocean of unplugged space.
The Glenties are masters at protecting that space. Gaoth Dobhair cut everyone open in there last year, but couldn’t find a square inch of room in any of the three games that made up the Donegal final.
Where there may be joy for Clontibret is in keeping Vinny Corey and Conor McManus close to goal. Because while Naomh Conaill protect the zones brilliantly, their full-back line can be left two-on-two at times. They also like to mark from in front, leaving the window open for that one big ball in behind.
There is the unpredictability of McManus to factor in. His most likely opponent, AJ Gallagher, might do everything right and squeeze him out on to the sideline on his left foot, and still have to watch the ball sailing over the bar.
Speaking earlier this week, McEntee highlighted the importance of the Glenties’ triangle of Leo McLoone and brothers Ciaran and Anthony Thompson, the latter at centre-back and the other pair at midfield.
Yet Gaoth Dobhair did manage to win a lot of ball against them in the air. Clontibret’s most impressive performer alongside O’Dowd in the win over Crossmaglen was midfielder Killian Lavelle, whose head-down-and-go-straight approach was very effective.
Conor Boyle won’t shirk the aerial assault that Naomh Conaill will look towards in attack, but they’ll need a second man in beside him who’s good in the air. The Glenties will go long towards Charles McGuinness and Kieran Gallagher whenever they can.
Clontibret will do their best to mirror them defensively, and if they can cut off the runs from deep by the in-form Ethan O’Donnell and the dangerous Jeaic McKelvey, they’ll make this another battle.
If Clontibret get a goal, they’ll win the game. But in the likely event that they don’t, it will be Naomh Conaill who will take the spot in the Ulster final.