GAA Football

Slaughtneil to nick crown off Magherafelt's head

Meehaul McGrath (pictured) could be handed a pivotal task to curtail Conor Kearns in what is set to be an intriguing, tactical Derry final. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

O’Neills Derry SFC final: Magherafelt v Slaughtneil (tomorrow, 4.30pm, Bellaghy)

THE second album has gone well for Magherafelt so far, but it’s about to meet the acid test from a rejuvenated Slaughtneil.

Having gone 41 years without a county title, the Rossas have repeated the trick of 1979 by bringing their crown back to the final.

There they were beaten by Bellaghy after a replay, and it’s to the home of the Wolfe Tones that both sides will make the short trip for what a curious first final between them, far removed from the colour and chaos of the 10,000 crowd that witnessed history in Celtic Park 12 months ago.

The influence of new managerial duo Paul Bradley and Gavin Devlin on Slaughtneil has been clear to see this year.

They are playing football to match, if not better, anything in Mickey Moran’s ultra-successful reign.

Their attack has been putting up hurling scores. 2-18, 2-12, 1-16, 3-21, 0-15 and 3-15 they’ve hit in their six games to date. It’s unthinkable that they’ll reach their 2-17 average tomorrow, but Magherafelt will have to put in a serious shift to shave enough off it to win.

The Rossas are the most organised, disciplined and methodical side around.

They weave quickly into defence and then explode into attack, taking their power from turnovers.

Jared Monaghan plays in a three across midfield on kickouts, and most of the rest of the time he spends on the edge of his own square as a 6’6” blockade to anything high or low near their goal.

A goal gifted to Ciaran Devlin in the semi-final was the first they’d conceded this year.

Adrian Cush’s team are conceding just under 10 points a game, yet Slaughtneil are even tighter, leaking an average of 1-6.

They don’t operate with the same rigid defensive structure, but do operate with a sweeper when the opposition offer it to them, as will be the case tomorrow.

Their defensive record is as much down to their absolute dominance of games. Only neighbours Glen in the quarter-final gave them any sort of test.

In analysing that game, Magherafelt will find a few nuggets. The decision for them is whether to adapt their own strategies to take advantage.

Glen went man-to-man on Slaughtneil’s kickouts. Antoin McMullan will kick short to men no matter how great the pressure on their back.

Of Slaughtneil’s 19 restarts that day, Glen won eight. They scored 0-4 off it and botched a goal chance.

Magherafelt don’t tend to do man-to-man. They’ll ordinarily shut down zones and force the opposition to go long into a wall of Jared Monaghan, Emmett McGuckin and Danny Heavron.

If they get their press right, they can lure mistakes out of a risky Slaughtneil strategy that will try to kick through the gaps.

Magherafelt have been playing Shane Heavron at full-forward and his form has been outstanding. He’s hit 1-13 in the knockout stages, and while just 0-4 of that is from play, he’s been the most serious thorn for Swatragh, Lavey and The Loup.

Their attacking game relies heavily on him but their primary asset is the collective punch they hold from deep.

Key to that is Conor Kearns, who has been the best club footballer in the county over the last two seasons.

He tends to stand tallest when Magherafelt really need him. Just as in the second half of last year’s decider, when they need to punch a hole and win a free, he’s the man willing to run through bodies and get hurt to do it.

Slaughtneil may ask Sean Cassidy to do a containing job there, or they may try and force a like-for-like battle with Meehaul McGrath, whose energy in his battle with Ryan Bell saw him out on top in the key early stages of their semi-final win over Ballinderry.

Paul Bradley’s whiteboard will have seen less damage than Cush’s this week. Beyond choosing the man for Kearns, the Emmet’s defensive setup almost sorts itself out.

The only curveball Magherafelt could really throw is to take a leaf out of the semi-finals and push Emmett McGuckin and Shane Heavron both inside at once to pepper a few high balls in.

Playing McGuckin inside would force Slaughtneil to potentially bring Chrissy McKaigue into the full-back line too, leaving them shorn of the real drive from half-back that their opponents will have.

Adrian Cush will have done more head-scratching the last week. Who picks up one of the country’s form forwards, Shane McGuigan? Is it Darren O’Neill or Giuseppe Lupari, if he’s fit? If he isn’t, does Peter Quinn come in and do it?

If McGuigan pulls out to find space around centre-forward as he did last weekend, Magherafelt will be more content to let him go than Ballinderry were. They won’t alter their shape.

In the form of Quinn, Fergal Duffin, Simon McErlain and Conor McCluskey – another star of this year’s championship - the holders have a range of natural options to pick up Brian Cassidy, Cormac O’Doherty and Christopher Bradley.

At midfield, Danny Heavron and Padraig Cassidy will face off in a key battle, while Patsy Bradley and Jared Monaghan will operate as their sides’ respective sweepers.

Slaughtneil’s run to the final has seen them rack up big scores but they’ve been accustomed to space in the opposition defence. That won’t be the case tomorrow in Bellaghy, where a final is a very different affair to one in Celtic Park.

The wind off Lough Foyle has dictated deciders in the city for a generation, with 8 of the last 11 Derry finals won by the team leading at half-time, and two of the three exceptions settled by decisive goals in the final four minutes.

The city wind won’t be there but conditions are expected to be wet as the tail of storm Alice hits. The toll of four games in 28 hours could take its toll on the pitch and lead to a scrappy affair.

The half-time lead could still be crucial. If Magherafelt got their noses in front, they could choke the life out of the Slaughtneil attack.

Even in deserved victory last year, Magherafelt’s attack displayed moments of rashness that they can ill-afford tomorrow.

You expect they’ll succeed in keeping Slaughtneil’s attack under relative control, but they’ll need to creep above their own scoring average as well by finding 14 or 15 points.

To do both is a big ask.

The two best footballing teams in Derry, the two best conditioned teams, there is precious little to choose between them.

Cormac Murphy, Declan Martin and Antone McElhone off the Magherafelt bench, Sé and Jerome McGuigan off Slaughtneil’s, offer new scoring options for the final 20 minutes. Overall, the holders are that bit stronger in reserve.

Slaughtneil, however, have greater scoring power in their starting attack and when both defences are so resolute, that ability to conjure scores from nothing might just settle it.

Extra-time and penalties are both a very real possibility.

But whether it’s after 60 minutes or 80, it’s Slaughtneil by a nose.

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