Slaughtneil meet old rivals Ballinderry for a place in Derry Championship final
Derry Senior Football Championship semi-final: Slaughtneil v Ballinderry (tomorrow, ****TBC****, 5pm)
SIX seasons ago, these clubs met in what turned out to be a changing-of-the-guard in Derry football.
Ballinderry were chasing a four in-a-row and were the reigning Ulster club champions while Slaughtneil's sole senior success had come a decade earlier. That final was tight and tense but in the end, Francis McEldowney lifted the John McLaughlin Cup and his club embarked upon an incredible three-pronged run of success that has packed the trophy cabinet at Emmet Park.
Slaughtneil did what that Ballinderry team could not - a four in-a-row under Mickey Moran - but it came to an end in 2018 and now, like their old rivals, they're striving to get back to the top of the tree.
On paper it seems like there's only one winner tomorrow and that is Slaughtneil.
When the side's met at the quarter-final stage last year, Slaughtneil emerged with a relatively comfortable six-point win. Ballinderry lost forward Gareth McKinless in the first half which was a blow but their problems stemmed from midfield - they couldn't win primary possession and so Slaughtneil controlled the pace and tempo of the game. Christopher Bradley got the goal in a 1-14 to 0-11 win and Ballinderry will need to have learnt their lessons to close that six-point gap tomorrow.
That was last year. This year Slaughtneil's championship form has been excellent with 10-82 scored, all five matches won and only 3-36 conceded.
Meanwhile, Ballinderry's form was patchy early on. The Shamrocks lost their first game to defending champions Magherafelt and although they recovered to beat Banagher in round two, a five-point loss to Glen was a disappointing way for them to finish the round-robin group stage.
However, the form line since has shown an upward trend. With veterans like Kevin McGuckin and Conor Nevin providing experience, youngsters including Glen McCusker and Conor O'Neill found their feet in the knockout stages and the Shamrocks recorded a morale-boosting 2-18 to 1-15 win over Newbridge after extra-time and, last weekend, Sean Graham's late goal saw Niall Conway's side get past Ballinascreen with three points to spare.
Despite those wins, Slaughtneil - chasing a first championship under former player Paul Bradley - are the bookies' favourites.
They'll be without injured Karl McKaigue tomorrow but full-back Brendan Rodgers, the cornerstone of so many of the Emmet's successes in football and hurling, has been around too long to allow any thoughts of complacency to enter into his calm head.
"We've been involved in so many big games going back to 2008," said the Derry star.
"They beat us in the final that year and in 2012 and then we got over the line in 2014.
"Every year we've met since it has been quarter-finals or semi-finals so I'd say the favourites' tag means absolutely nothing when it comes to this sort of a game.
"You always say there are teams with a championship pedigree and that would be fitting to them. They've always been there-or-thereabouts and they've freshened things up this last year or two with a few new players coming in."
Last weekend, Slaughtneil saw off 2019 finalists Glen and that result and the form the team showed has left them in good shape for tomorrow.
"We have to take confidence from getting this far and beating Glen is not an easy task," said Rodgers.
"So we can take confidence that we have ability to win games but you can't get ahead of yourself. Look at Glen last year - they went in heavy favourites for the final and didn't win it. We don't want to come off last week's result and think we are guaranteed success in the next game.
"You have to remain focussed on what has to be done rather than thinking about the things that are behind us. At the end of the day, we don't have any trophies to celebrate yet."