Junior Final looks too close to call

The Devenish Junior Football Championship final

St. Patrick’s Lisburn v Kickham’s Ardoyne

Saturday: Glenavy 3-00

Tomorrow’s Junior Football Championship final between St. Patrick’s Lisburn and Kickham’s Ardoyne looks a difficult one to call. Both sides have impressed on their way to Saturday’s decider and there are valid arguments for placing the favourite’s burden on both of them.

Neither side set the championship alight in their opening round wins with Ardoyne having just two points to spare when they beat Eire Og at St. Paul’s while the Lisburn men certainly didn’t get it all their own way when beating Lochra Loch Lao 1-9 to 1-4 at Glenavy.

There was marked improvement on the part of both of tomorrow’s protagonists however with St. Patrick’s finding their shooting boots as they racked up an impressive 1-18 against a Na Piarsaigh side who could only manage 0-4 on the night.

Ardoyne faced a much stiffer test when they were drawn against St. Comgall’s at Woodlands and looked in a bit of trouble when they trailed by a point at half time. Ardoyne made the perfect beginning to the second-half however, finding the net within two minutes of the games resumption.

Joe McNeill and Cormac Mullan interlinked to great effect, Gary McKernan picked up possession and threaded the ball through to Mullan whose low shot squeezed through the legs of Ben Johnston and into the St Comgall’s net to give Ardoyne a 1-06-1-04 lead.

With just three between the sides as the game went into the closing stages a fabulous attacking move down the right hand channel saw the ball played into the path of Kevin Lynch and Lynch steered the ball into the roof of the net – giving Ben Johnston no chance and ensuring Ardoyne were now 2-09-1-06 ahead and they never looked back.

Both sides went into their semi-finals as firm favourites with St. Patrick’s Lisburn facing O’Donnell’s and Ardoyne drawn against McQuillan’s Ballycastle.

St Pat’s Lisburn booked their place in the final for the third year in succession after running out 1-22 to 0-09 winners over O’Donnell’s at Woodlands.

The sides were evenly matched in the opening quarter as Richard McAvoy kicked five of O’Donnell’s opening scores and brought his side back on terms after Conor Dixon had edged Lisburn in front with the game’s only goal.

But O’Donnell’s went over 40 minutes without a score and struggled to deal with the threat from outstanding corner-forward Josh McMullan.

McMullan drew numerous fouls that were converted by Dixon and Francis McMeel as their side hit 17-points unanswered to comfortably progress to the decider.

In the second semi-final Ardoyne didn’t get it all their own way against a rejuvenated Ballycastle side but still had too much in the tank when questions were asked.  A late goal by centre back, and team captain Joe McNeill put the contest out of reach of the North Antrim side who had threatened a comeback.

 The North Belfast side with the impressive Cormac Mullan leading the way were 1-10 to 0-03 ahead at the interval but Ballycastle started the second half aided by the breeze and with centre back Ronan McCarry and Tiernan Butler leading by example they came storming back.

Stephen McIllroy despatched a 36th minute penalty to the net and Tiernan Butler added another from play, and having enjoyed a 10 point lead at the start of the second half Ardoyne were now just four ahead.

They responded however and a late Joe McNeill goal, created by his brother Aiden, sealed the verdict and a place in the decider.

Both have impressed on their way to tomorrow’s final so it is perhaps to their league campaigns that we have to look for some indication of advantage. St. Patrick’s Lisburn played their football in division 2 in 2019 but were relegated at the end of season with only one win to their credit.

I attended a couple of their games at Rasharkin and at Whitehill and they were well in contention in both of those games before going down to the home sides. That win at Glenravel will have given them some confidence and they carried it into their Junior Championship campaign.

Ardoyne gained promotion from division 3 this year, having finished runners up and were involved in a division2/3 play-off with St. Mary’s Rasharkin who finished second bottom of division 2. Twelve points separated the sides after the first of a two leg play-off with Ardoyne gaining a massive advantage going into round two. Rasharkin edged the second game by the minimum but it is Ardoyne who will ply their trade in division 2 next year.

This is St. Patrick’s third final in three years, having lost the previous two to Sarsfield’s and Glenravel and they will be determined to put that to rights tomorrow and would appear to have more to play for but former St. Gall’s and Antrim keeper, Paddy Murray has the Kickham’s in great shape and this one could go either way.

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