Northern Switchgear Antrim Senior Football Championship semi-final: Roger Casements, Portglenone v St Mary’s, Aghagallon (tomorrow, Dunsilly, 5pm)
IN life and in sport, timing is everything. Until the final chapter of this year’s slow burner of an Antrim senior football championship is written, we won’t know if John McKeever’s return to his home club in 2022 was perfectly timed or not.
In truth, McKeever never really left, as he’s always been deeply invested in the club's underage structures. When Barry Dillon departed the Casements senior post at the end of last season, having suffered three agonising championship semi-final losses on the bounce, the time was right for a change.
McKeever assumes the role after accruing a wealth of sideline experience at Fr Rocks, Cookstown, Na Fianna Coalisland and more recently at Bellaghy Wolf Tones to find a buoyant group of players rather than a demoralised one.
Portglenone have never won a senior championship in its 82-year history - but there’s a good vibe around the south west Antrim club this season.
“You put a lot more pressure on yourself because it’s your own people, it’s your own community,” said McKeever, a schoolteacher at Holy Trinity Cookstown.
“We’ve never won a senior championship before. We’ve been beaten in a few finals but we just haven’t been fit to get over the line. So you do feel the pressure but it’s because you want it that much, you would just love to get the monkey off their back.
“Aghagallon are a really excellent team with so many good players. It's going to be a massive task for us to get past them."
Portglenone lost consecutive semi-finals to Lamh Dhearg, Creggan Kickhams and Aghagallon, with the latter arguably being the toughest of the lot to take.
They were leading by five points in extra-time, but somehow failed to game-manage the remainder and Aghagallon swept to victory to reach their first-ever senior final.
Ravaged by absenteeism during their league campaign, St Mary’s have most of their big guns back and are showing championship form again.
Adam Loughran and Eunan Walsh are Aghagallon’s two dynamic link men along the half-forward line, while Ruairi McCann and Gareth Magee are always men for the big occasion, backed by a defence that only coughed up three points from play in seeing off St Brigid’s in the quarter-finals.
Portglenone have yet to experience any serious turbulence in this year’s championship, overcoming St Brigid’s themselves in the group stages as well as neighbours Ahoghill and then Moneyglass before breezing past Gort na Mona in their last eight encounter.
Dermot McAleese, Niall Delargy and Niall McKeever offer experience and leadership to a side whose average age is around 23.
In attack, Aidan McAleese has added a sharper edge to the Portglenone attack this season.
Aghagallon have the muscle memory of playing in a senior final last year. Portglenone are driven by the hurt of previous semi-final losses.
John McKeever’s men should have enough to break down that semi-final door in Dunsilly tomorrow evening.