Slick Cargin have the tools to seal historic three-in-a-row
Northern Switchgear Antrim Senior Football Championship final: Erin’s Own, Cargin v Creggan Kickhams (tomorrow, Portglenone, 2.30pm)
THERE might just be a hint of it among the Cargin faithful that their team’s epic semi-final win over Lamh Dhearg was effectively this year’s ‘final’.
And the fact Mick McCann and Marty Kane got their suspensions lifted on Wednesday, the defending champions only have to turn up in Portglenone tomorrow afternoon to make it a cool three-in-a-row.
If only championship football was that simple – especially against a cheek-by-jowl neighbour like Creggan Kickhams who are absolutely ravenous for a first senior title since 1954.
Two years ago, they had the winning of their final joust against Cargin. For long periods, Creggan dictated the terms of engagement.
Kevin Madden, now with the Tyrone senior footballers, set up Creggan in a very defensive formation but with sufficient counter-attacking threat and energy.
On the day, Creggan can count themselves unlucky. For long periods, the Kickhams flummoxed Cargin who couldn’t get the runners off the shoulder to attack the defensive blanket at pace.
Madden’s side actually created enough chances to win the game and end the famine – but they couldn’t convert them.
The 12 wides they clocked up in a very low-scoring game probably still haunts them.
As it turned out, Mick McCann and Tomas McCann’s vital second-half scores just about got Cargin over the line, with a score-line that made everybody wince – 0-5 to 0-4.
After a disappointing 2019 campaign, Madden bid a fond farewell to the Kickhams with some important foundations dug and a way of playing style that is ingrained in a group of players that hasn’t changed a great deal over the last 24 months.
Crucially, Gerard McNulty, who assisted Madden, took the reins and is joined by his brother and fellow St Enda’s, Glengormley clubman Thomas McNulty.
Continuity is important, especially when a group of players feel the final chapter has yet to be written - and Gerard McNulty shares in the hurt of 2018.
The spiritual leaders are still there too: Conor McCann, Ricky and Marty Johnston, Kevin and Conor Small (the latter still battling back to full fitness) and young Tiernan McAteer, a MacRory Cup winner with St Mary’s Magherafelt in 2017.
The Creggan community is fired more than others by the ravaging effects of Covid19, and the current squad will have been suitably inspired by the indomitable spirit of Gerard McLarnon who beat the deadly virus after spending 57 days in intensive care.
McLarnon coached roughly 90 per cent of the current group of senior footballers.
Granted, Creggan haven’t hit the high notes this term and didn't register big scores in reaching tomorrow’s decider but they still had sufficient quality and experience to navigate a tricky group and record knock-out wins over St Enda’s and Portglenone.
Although they haven’t always shown it in this championship, there is a deep conviction within the group that they are better armed than two years ago.
But so, too, are Cargin.
With three seasons under his belt as manager, Damian Cassidy has moulded a team that is a better version of 2018.
Cargin have always been a smart, street-wise bunch of footballers – that will always be in their DNA – but they have more legs about them now.
Young half-back Ronan Gribbin has been outstanding in the green jersey this season, while Jamie Gribbin goes from strength to strength and for one so young is eyeing up a third winner’s medal.
Kevin McShane has proven the perfect midfield wing man for Mick McCann, the team’s quarter-back who never gets sacked.
And Pat Shivers is another player who wasn’t around two years ago and gives Cargin a sharper attacking edge, alternating with Tomas McCann between centre-forward and full-forward to brilliant effect against Lamh Dhearg.
Since the 2018 decider, Cargin are also more adept at unpicking crowded defences, evidenced by Shivers’ brilliant second-half goal that finally broke Lamh Dhearg on the Hightown Road a fortnight ago.
The Cargin players can play in tight pockets of spaces better than ever and have more off-the-shoulder runners than they ever had.
In short, they're moving the ball better than ever.
And they still have that thick layer of hardened experience in their ranks with the injury-plagued Kevin O’Boyle, in particular, having a fine campaign.
Amid the late red-card mayhem of their semi-final win, Cargin ‘hammered the hammer’ by putting ‘Kobo’ on Lamh Dhearg playmaker Conor Murray.
Creggan will come to this 2020 final with tremendous fighting spirit and resilience – but Damian Cassidy and Ronan Devlin will have been nipping away at the Cargin players to ensure that they are mentally ready for their neighbours.
An historic three-in-a-row is within Cargin's grasp - but their grip will be seriously tested by their neighbours.
Paths to the final
Erin’s Own Cargin
Aldergrove 0-4 Cargin 3-14
Cargin 2-9 Aghgallon 0-12
Cargin 1-9 St Brigid’s 1-6
Cargin 2-18 Aldergrove 0-9
Aghgallon 3-8 Cargin 1-16
St Brigid’s 1-7 Cargin 3-19
Cargin 2-23 O’Donovan Rossa 0-7
Cargin 1-13 Lamh Dhearg 3-9
Portglenone 1-7 Creggan Kickhams 1-10
Creggan Kickhams 1-10 Ahoghill 0-8
Creggan Kickhams 0-7 Portglenone 1-6
Ahoghill 0-7 Creggan Kickhams 1-16
Creggan Kickhams 3-9 St Enda’s Glengormley 1-8
Creggan Kickhams 2-10 Portglenone 1-8