Cavan champions Ballyhaise stand in the way of Cullyhanna's Ulster title dream

Gavan Duffy drives forward for Cullyhanna during their semi-final victory over Down champions Liatroim
Gavan Duffy drives forward for Cullyhanna during their semi-final victory over Down champions Liatroim Gavan Duffy drives forward for Cullyhanna during their semi-final victory over Down champions Liatroim

Ulster Intermediate Football Championship final: St Patrick’s Cullyhanna (Armagh) v Ballyhaise (Cavan) (Sunday, Castleblayney, 1pm)

FROM the start of this season, Cullyhanna targeted the Ulster title and, given that the club had never reached a provincial final before, you might have regarded their target as overly ambitious. But the Armagh champions have matched their words with deeds throughout a campaign that saw them march through their own county and past Tyrone’s Pomeroy and Down’s Liatroim to their club’s first-ever provincial final.

Stephen Reel’s side were never pushed to the absolute pin of their collars in Armagh but they had to dig in to beat Pomeroy at Healy Park and they passed the test thanks to a late free from county star Aidan Nugent, his seventh of that game.

It might have gone either way at the finish, but Cullyhanna deserved their victory and they marched on to a semi-final against the Down champions. The South Armagh men dominated possession but poor finishing meant Liatroim were still well in the game at half-time.

However, a reset during the interval had the desired result and Cullyhanna powered to an 11-point victory. Again Nugent was the chief scorer with 0-8, including five frees. Also among the scorers – as you’d expect – were fellow Armagh regulars Jason Duffy and Ross McQuillan.

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Cullyhanna are by no means a three-man team but the running power, physicality and finishing ability of their county threesome – and the ball-winning ability of Tony Donnelly - will give the Ballyhaise management no shortage of headaches. Keeping a lid on all three of Cullyhanna’s best known scoring threats could well decide the issue.

Skipper Pearse Casey and Barry McConville drive the team from midfield and the Cullyhanna defence has been boosted by the return of former Armagh star Mickey Murray. Goalkeeper James Carragher marshals a rearguard that hasn’t conceded a goal in Ulster so far in this campaign.

For Ballyhaise to win on Sunday you would expect that that stat will have to change and the Breffnimen will be confident they have the firepower to do just that.

The Breffni outfit, who play their league football in Division One, had lost back-to-back county finals before they got over the line with a six-point success against Denn, have found the net five times in their two Ulster outings.

Adam Heaslip, Paddy Moore (2) and tireless former Cavan county star Kevin Tierney all scored goals against Donegal’s Downings and it was David Brady who conjured up the major that turned the semi-final against Derry’s Glenullin at Healy Park.

Glenullin had been more efficient in front of the posts and were in charge throughout the first half, but the Breffnimen pushed hard after the break and the introduction of former Cavan star Sean McCormack gave them a foothold in midfield. It was McCormack’s pass that sent Brady through and the reliable frontman stuck the ball in the net six minutes from time to turn the game on its head.

“We lost it, they didn’t win it,” said disappointed Glenullin manager Paddy Bradley after his side had lost by a point and missed out on a first-ever Ulster final.

“Five or 10 minutes into the second half, the game was there for us. We had the foot on the throat but we didn’t kill it off.”

Semi-finals are for winning and it won’t have mattered a jot to Ballyhaise that they scraped through and, like Cullyhanna, they would take a one-point win if you offered it now. Both clubs have showcased an enterprising brand of attacking football throughout this championship and Cullyhanna go into the final with the confidence of a side that has dealt relatively comfortably with everything that has been thrown at them this season.

Ballyhaise will have belief too. This is a side that stayed together after losing two county finals on-the-trot and they will be hard to shift but Cullyhanna’s proven cutting edge means they start as favourites to do what they set out to at the start of this campaign.