Senior Football Championship Final Preview
Whatever happens in Sunday’s Senior Football Championship final between St. John’s and Lamh Dhearg there will be a new name inscribed on the trophy for the first time this Century. St. Gall’s and Cargin have dominated the Antrim Senior Championship for nearly 2 decades with the Milltown side going on to win Ulster and an All Ireland title during their illustrious reign.
The Milltown Row side have won the title 19 times in all including 13 wins since 2001 and they won eight in a row from 2007 to 2014 while Cargin have collected seven titles and were aiming for a first three-in-a-row when they lost to St. John’s in last Sunday’s semi-final replay.
St. Gall’s 19 wins are surpassed however by this Sunday’s finalists St. John’s who will be aiming for their 25th title, although the Corrigan Park side have to go back to 1998 for their last Championship success. The one before that arrived in 1988 and the majority of their success was achieved back in the 60’s (7 titles), 70’s (6 titles) and 80’s (4 titles). Their other five titles came even further back with wins in 1945 and 1949, and in 1951, 1957 and 1959.
Few of the present squad will have much recollection of those successes and for the new kids on the block Sunday offers an opportunity to put the memory of those legendry ghosts of the past to bed. After lingering in the doldrums for a number of years and enviously looking on as St. Gall’s, from just up the road, collected title after title it’s the men from the Whiterock who have re-emerged as serious championship contenders.
Successful minor teams back in 2011, 2012 and 2013 went on to win U21 titles in 2014 and 2015. Those successful U21 teams went on to contest Ulster U21 finals against Watty Graham’s, Maghera and while they lost both those finals to an exceptional Maghera side, the foundation for further success had been laid.
The Johnnies have competed very well in this year’s All County league, finishing one point behind winners Cargin and they have really come to life in the 2017 Championship. They began their campaign with a resounding victory over St. James Aldergrove in Hannastown winning 2-17 to 1-8 before going on to defeat St. Joseph’s Glenavy by 2-15 to 0-9 at the same venue in the quarter-final.
Neither of those side provided a real test for the Corrigan Park side and when they were drawn against holders Cargin in the semi-final, the Toome side were installed as firm favourites. The young Johnnies were having none of it however as they controlled the game from early on and looked well on their way to a place in the final when they led by five points at the end of the third quarter.
Cargin showed their fighting spirit scoring three late unanswered points to draw level and when Paddy McBride missed a late free to secure a win there was a feeling that St. John’s may have missed the boat.
The Johnnies proved that theory wrong in the replay and once again they were the better team for most of the game but, as in the drawn game they were reeled in at the 11th hour as a late Cargin points sent the game into extra time. A Conor Johnston goal at the start of the second half of injury time sent them on their way to victory.
They could even afford the luxury of a missed penalty as Matthew Fitzpatrick slipped as he was about to take the spot kick. Despite the fact that his spot kick skewed harmlessly wide there were wild scenes of celebration after the final whistle in Glenavy.
Fitzpatrick got a bit of ribbing on social media after for his miss but the Antrim county man laughed it off and was at pains to point out that St. John’s have won nothing yet and on Sunday will face an equally hungry opponent in Lamh Dhearg.
The Hannastown side have only three championship titles to their name despite competing in Division one for most of their history. They won the Championship in 1929 and 1971 and were awarded the title in 1992 after the other semi-finalists were dismissed from the competition.
Lamh Dhearg have had many battles with Sunday’s opponents and indeed were on the wrong side of those two St. John’s U21 successes in 2014 and 2015 losing to the Whiterock Road side in both finals so there will be a renewal of acquaintances for many of those players come Sunday.
Lamh Dhearg collected a massive scalp in the quarter-final when they overcame St. Gall’s in a see-saw battle at Corrigan Park in the quarter-final. After trailing to two early goals they fought back bravely to win by four and earn a place against Creggan in the semi-final.
They went on to beat the Kickham’s by four in the semi-final with veteran corner-forward, Paddy Cunningham leading the way with a personal tally of 1-7 (0-6 frees) and if its tight at Glenavy on Sunday then a consistent free taker could well be the difference between the sides.
Both teams are likely to field with similar lineouts to their semi-finals and they will know each other well. The sides met twice in the league in July with Lamh Dhearg winning by four points at Corrigan but when they met two weeks later at Hannastown it was St. John’s who emerged victorious by seven.
Lamh Dhearg have an experienced keeper in John Finucane and Adrian McAufield, Declan Lynch and Michael Herron are likely to anchor their defence. Former St. John’s man Donal Nugent should line out at mid-field and will come in direct conflict with his brother Padraig, the St. John’s keeper and his father Paddy who is the manager of St. John’s.
In attack Paddy Cunningham will have excellent allies in the Murray brother, Conor and Ryan and former Fermanagh player Ciaran Flaherty who has been a useful addition to their squad this year.
St. John’s will have the afore mentioned Padraig Nugent in goals and Nugent, as well as being a solid keeper has another string to his bow. An excellent free taker, Nugent kicked two ‘45s’ against Cargin and his solo runs up the field have been a feature of his play this season.
In front of him Adrian Oliver, who gained a reprieve after being Red carded in the first semi-final against Cargin, will anchor a strong defence where Aaron Douglas, Michael Dudley and Michael Bradley have been excellent.
Simon McDonagh has been strong at mid-field but St. John’s lost his partner and team captain Ronan McCaffery to a red card against Cargin in the first game and it’s unclear at the time of writing if he will be available for Sunday’s final. Ryan McNulty proved a more than competent replacement in the replay and is likely to again get the nod.
In a very potent and sharp St. John’s attack Matt Fitzpatrick has been the star man and he has excellent colleagues in Paddy McBride, Conor Johnston, Peter McCallin and Luke Peden.
Again there doesn’t look to be a lot separating these two very talented and hungry sides. Sunday’s game is likely to be hard hitting and a real championship battle and there won’t be a lot of love lost as they strive to be the first name on the trophy other than Cargin and St. Gall’s in the last 19 years.
The chat is sure to be interesting in the Nugent household this week and hopefully all parties will still be on speaking terms come Sunday night. I expect there to be little seperating the sides after 60 minutes and it might even take extra time or a replay before it’s all decided but I’ll make a tentative prediction of a St. John’s win by a couple of points.