Magherafelt keep their cool to hold off Loup and seal final spot
O’Neills Derry SFC semi-final: St Patrick’s, Loup 1-10 O’Donovan Rossa, Magherafelt 0-14
THEY have become the kings of keeping their cool, and defending champions Magherafelt held their nerve once more to edge out Loup and secure their spot in a second consecutive Derry decider.
Experience of battle leads the best sides to reach a point of being where it becomes completely natural to remain calm amid potential chaos. Three years into Adrian Cush’s reign at Rossa Park, Magherafelt carry that air.
Every man is at ease with his role and the expectations upon him, thus they exude a sense of control across the field. Loup pushed hard in the second half on Saturday night but, apart from landing the opening score, could never quite nudge their noses in front heading down the stretch.
It would have been interesting to see how Magherafelt would have reacted if they had.
Just as they did against Swatragh seven days earlier, Magherafelt established an arm’s length lead at half-time in Bellaghy, where both semi-finals took place following a late switch from Celtic Park.
Against a team that is so defensively well-drilled, trailing by four – as Loup were – represents more of a mountain than a molehill to overcome.
Shane Heavron, rotating in and out of full-forward with Emmett McGuckin, didn’t take long to find his range from distance as Magherafelt turned the screw, forcing turnovers at crucial times as they landed five of the six scores after the first water break to lead 0-9 to 0-5 at half-time.
A couple of booming Odhran Lynch kick-outs kept Loup guessing as they pushed up on the Magherafelt ’keeper, with one leading to a 13th minute score for Conor Kearns to put them ahead 0-3 to 0-2.
Kearns and fellow raining wing-back Conor McCluskey bring the drive from deep that can make Magherafelt difficult to contain, and those two put Loup on the back foot at every possible opportunity.
Yet, even though their heads were down heading off at the break, Paddy Bradley’s men hadn’t doing a whole lot wrong.
A couple of times they snatched at a couple of half chances when patience would have been best advised, while Sean Rocks was the unexpected recipient of a 22nd minute goal chance when a Paul McVey shot bounced out off the upright and into his hands in the square. Unfortunately for Rocks, and Loup, the ball was spilled and Magherafelt gathered up possession.
The margins between the teams were often miniscule but, having seen his forwards forced out to the wings so often, Bradley needed to do something that would give Loup a more direct option. Enter Marc Devlin.
The towering full-forward was brought into the fray at half-time and caused all kinds of bother, offering Loup a direct option inside instead of playing into their opponents’ hands. He scored two brilliant points - one from an attacking mark after a superb catch above three Magherafelt heads, the second after winning the ball on the group before bouncing back over and splitting the posts from a difficult angle out wide.
And when Ciaran Devlin capitalised on a Fergal Duffin error eight minutes after half-time to score the game’s only goal – the first miserly Magherafelt have conceded in this championship run – 0-10 to 1-7, it was game on at 0-11 to 1-7.
But Magherafelt showed their experience by refusing to allow Loup any momentum, immediately going up the field and winning a free, duly converted by Shane Heavron. They managed to push the lead out to two with two minutes left courtesy of substitute Cormac Murphy but while Loup kept coming, the champions worked like dogs to deny them the opportunity to force extra-time, ensuring their own back-to-back title ambitions remain alive and well.
But selector James Slater insists the players haven’t allowed themselves to dream about lifting the John McLaughlin Cup again just yet.
“No, absolutely not,” said the Dungannon man.
“We’ve had a tough three games, it’s been very tight all the way, all into the last couple of minutes. Now we’re there we can enjoy it - it’s a quick turnaround.
“Back to back finals is something we’re happy with, but we’ve one more step to go now.”
For Bradley, meanwhile, it was a case of what might have been.
“We just couldn’t get ahead - that was the thing,” said the former Derry forward.
“Probably the damage was done in the first half, they turned over a couple of balls that led to scores, there was a couple of frees they got where we had actually dispossessed them and fouled the man after.
“It’s just disappointing that we didn’t get over the line because, coming here tonight, Magherafelt, county champions, they have quality all over the field, we thought we could turn them over.
“There’s so much more to come from this team. If we get a bit of luck with injuries next year, they’ll not be far away. They showed tonight they’re fit to compete at the top table.”
Loup: T Mallon (0-1, free); S Rocks, Dominic McVey, G Doyle; P Young; P Coney (0-1), A McAlynn (0-1), A Canavan; T O’Brien, J Rocks; Caolan Devlin (0-2, 0-1 free), B Doyle, P McVey; Ciaran Devlin (1-1), A O’Neill (0-2, frees). Subs: CJ McVey for G Doyle (18), M Devlin (0-2, 0-1 mark) for P McVey (HT), Declan McVey for B Doyle (34), T Canavan for S Rocks (50)
Yellow card: Caolan Devlin (42)
Magherafelt: O Lynch; S McErlain, D O’Neill, G Lupari (0-1); J Monaghan; C McCluskey, F Duffin, C Kearns (0-2); E McGuckin (0-1), D Heavron (0-3, 0-1 free); R Ferris, P McAlarnon, J Young M McEvoy; S Heavron (0-6, 0-4 frees). Subs: C Murphy (0-1) for Young (48), A McElhone for McLarnon (51), P Quinn for Lupari (53)
Yellow card: D Heavron (40)
Ref: JJ Cleary (Castledawson)