Na Piarsaigh dip their toes in Ulster waters

Ulster JFC Quarter-final

Brewster Park – Sunday 1.00pm

Antrim Junior Football Champions, Na Piarsaigh of Belfast dip their toes into the Ulster waters for the first time this Sunday when they face Newtownbutler First Fermanaghs in the first round of the Ulster Junior club championship.

It’s a step into the unknown for the North Belfast side but it is one they will surely relish as it comes on the back of serious progress for the club over the past two seasons. Two years ago they lost to Rasharkin in the Antrim JFC semi-final after losing out to the same side in the division 3 league final.

Both those defeats at the hands of a very experienced Rasharkin side were by the narrowest of margins and Na Piarsaigh have learned from those defeats and set out this year to collect their first Junior title since 1971.

The improvement this season from the Newlodge side has been remarkable and after finishing second to O’Donnell’s in group 1 of the qualifiers they went on to defeat St. Malachy’s in the semi-final before avenging their only loss to O’D’s in the Antrim final at Dunsilly on Friday 7th October.

Cardinal O’Donnells 0-07   Na Piarsaigh 1-15

A goal on the rebound from the predatory Naoise O’Cuilin seven minutes from the final whistle added the extra gloss on a composed performance from Pearses to put the game beyond the reach of O’Donnell’s. The North Belfast natives reversed an early one-point deficit after five minutes and refused to relinquish their advantage for the remainder.

In truth, with the exception of the opening ten minutes of the second half, the men in green and yellow seemed to constantly exert a measure of control over proceedings and were ruthlessly efficient in front of the posts. Piaras Donaghy was certainly the conductor of their symphony. The number 22 starred on the evening and was the fulcrum of nearly every Pearses’ attack. His ability to dictate and link play was pivotal in their success and the proficiency of their full forward line, assisted well by top scorer Stephen Fitzsimmons, proved to be too much firepower for the O’D’s rear-guard to handle.

O’Donnell’s looked like staging a comeback during the second half but Pearses had other ideas and yet again Donaghy was at the forefront. His driving run from the engine room presented Fionn Grew to make some amends for an earlier miss from the penalty spot, and he duly obliged. Grew was on target yet again on the fiftieth minute following some excellent work from corner back, Aidan Bannon.

The death knell for O’Donnell’s was to sound five minutes later though as O’Cuilin blasted home emphatically from close range on the rebound despite Murphy’s heroics to deny Liam Campbell from the initial effort.

What of Newtownbutler?

Six years since their last appearance in the Ulster Club Championship, the First Fermanagh’s take on Antrim Champions Na Piarsaigh on Sunday. Their last campaign in 2016 started with a quarter-final win over Down side Drumgath, before losing the semi-final by just 2 points to eventual winners Rock, Tyrone.

One man on the pitch that day was experienced defender Jarlath Jackman and he’s relishing another crack at the Ulster Club.

Jarlath made his senior debut way back in 2009 and despite a serious injury early this year, where he broke his leg in 3 places, he is back flying fit and ready for action on Sunday.

Newtownbutler eased past Coa before going on to beat Aghadrumsee in the final at Brewster Park. The First Fermanagh’s have some talented young players making their way in the senior side in the likes of Diarmaid King, Sean Conlon and Gerr O’Keefe while Ryan Carson, James Connolly and James Maguire provide experience so they have a nice mix.

The character shown by his side in the final was the most pleasing thing of the performance insists Newtown Manager Darren Chapman after his side edged out Aghadrumsee to land the Junior title.

When the sides met at the semi-final stage a few weeks ago, the First Fermanagh’s were second best in the hunger stakes as they fell to defeat. But they showed no shortage of desire to turn that result around in the final.

Chapman felt it was some of the side’s younger stars that played lead roles in seeing them to victory.

“I thought a lot of the younger fellas really stood up in the last 15 minutes. Sean Conlon was immense in midfield – he kept us on the front foot whenever we were under pressure.

“Diarmaid King was superb inside and we probably didn’t get enough ball into him, and then the old hands in the last five or ten minutes; James Connolly sat back and was mopping up a few balls, Paul O’Brien cleared one off the line,” he added.

Manager Chapman expects a tough test from the Antrim champions and Na Piarsaigh are capable of providing it if they can produce their A game at Brewster Park. They have put the disappointment of last year’s double defeat to Rasharkin behind them and have been in sparkling form in 2022.

“If we are looking back at history, this would be very much bonus territory,” said Pearse’s joint-manager Marcus Kelly when looking ahead to Sunday.

“I don’t think many teams target a run in Ulster during the season, but given the fact we’re still operating so late in the year, we’ll not be there to make up the numbers.

“Looking back at the results over the past 10 years, it would appear the Junior champions from Antrim don’t get past the first round in the provincial stage. That’s something we’ll look to change although Newtownbutler are a good side and we’ll be up against it.

“Thankfully, with the advances in technology, we were able to view their final a couple of weeks ago.

“They played a really open style of football, no sweeper or packed defence. Similar to us, they have very good attacking forwards and they are very strong around midfield.

“That was a really open game of football. They managed to edge it by two points, but is was free-flowing and a good game to watch. I don’t anticipate they will change their style too much when we come up against them this week.”

Na Piarsaigh are a strong mobile unit with Piaras Donaghy at mid-field their go-to man and if Donaghy clicks then Na Piarasaigh are in with a fighting chance. He is only one of a very talented and focused Pearses team however and the North Belfast side will be relishing Sunday’s challenge.

Niall Largey in goals, the O’Neill’s, centre half and captain, Aodhan McCavana and Liam Campbell, Stephen Fitzsimmons, Naoise O’Cuilin and Fionn Grew in attack are all potential match winners.

Campbell hit an impressive 0-7 against O’Donnell’s in the Antrim final while Grew weighed in with 0-4, Campbell with 0-3 and O’Cuilin 1-1 and if they can produce that proficiency in attack at Brewster Park on Sunday they can advance to the next round.

Pearses v O’Donnell’s: N Largey; D O’Neill, C O’Neill, A Bannon; T McFarlane, A McCavana, N Gorman; R Bannon, P Donaghy; P Murray, S Fitzsimmons, S Moreland; F Grew, L Campbell, N O’Cuilin

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