SFC preview: Heavyweights limber up for opening round
Senior Football Championship preview
Paul Fitzpatrick runs the rule over the runners and riders in the Senior Football Championship, which throws in this weekend.
Ballinagh coasted to the intermediate title in 2020 and were strong in senior last year, drawing with eventual champions Ramor in the group before losing to them in the quarter-final. Members of the Ramor camp stated at season’s end that Ballinagh were one of the toughest outfits they had faced but the loss of a few experienced players will be difficult to overcome this year.
Padraic and Niall O’Reilly, SFC-winning captain Killian McBride and Enda Brady have retired, although David Finnegan has returned after a break. David’s brother Shane is now a leader on the team and had a very good league, operating in the half-forward line.
Paddy O’Brien was consistent as ever and Barry Connolly had a breakthrough campaign before picking up a knee injury which could sideline him for some time.
Ronan Connolly is another who has stepped up and played well in a wing-back/wing-forward role. Cormac Timoney has been outstanding this season; he is in America but should be available for most of the championship.
Manager Adrian Maguire is in his fourth year and has a bit of a rebuilding job to do, assisted by selectors Graham Harrison and Anthony Duffy and trainer Daire Sheridan (Ramor). However, he will have county panellists Thomas Smith and Evan Finnegan available again and Finnegan in particular will be a key figure; Ballinagh leaked 21 goals in the league and the return of the county corner-back should help in that regard.
The big plus is that Niall McDermott is still doing the business. The former county forward remains one of the best ball-winners and free-takers in the competition and his presence alone will be worth quite a few points. First up is Mullahoran.
Manager: Adrian Maguire
Key man: Niall McDermott
Although there is the odd exception, in recent years, teams who have won the Intermediate Championship have tended to struggle at senior level. Shercock went up in 2017 and stayed four years but won just one group game of 16; Mullahoran won the IFC in 2018 and have three group wins from 12 matches since.
Laragh returned to senior ranks for the 2020 season and although they improved last year, they still have just one win from nine games. Prior to that, Arva and Ballyhaise were impressive intermediate champions and were relegated in their first year in senior; 2008 and 2010 winners Redhills and Drumalee are now operating at junior level.
The trend suggests, then, that the Bridge have a big job on their hands to consolidate at senior but there is plenty of cause for optimism. They won last year’s intermediate the hard way, coming through Bailieborough, Cuchulainns and Ballyhaise in the knock-out stages.
What they lack in physicality, they make up for in skill, with talented ball-players all over the pitch including the O’Reilly brothers up front, flanked by Kevin and Paddy McPhilips.
Feargal Flanagan is integral at the back, as is Cavan U20 player Cathal Leddy. Their age profile suggests they are open to plenty of improvement, although John Fitzpatrick, who has emigrated, is an incalculable loss.
On the plus side, while senior football is a shark-infested water, they have avoided the sea monsters in the first round. Daragh McCarthy has proven himself one of the best managers around and he will have them primed for the opening game against Laragh, a game they will certainly be targeting to pick up two valuable points.
Manager: Daragh McCarthy
Key man: Feargal Flanagan
It is testament to the high standards at Terry Coyle Park that while Cavan Gaels are certainly in transition since their last SFC title in 2017, they have remained competitive enough to contest the last three county semi-finals and, recently, the league final
The age profile of the Gaels would seem to indicate improvement will be hard to eke out but they have looked better this year. The likes of Gowna, Ramor and Crosserlough are significantly younger though. The majority of the current Cavan Gaels team are above the 30-mark – is it possible for a team to improve enough to close the gap, five years since their last win, given this stat? It’s a huge ask but their desire and resilience, as shown with two big comebacks recently, are not in doubt.
The Gaels used 20 players in their league semi-final win over Ramor. Seven of the starters were over the 30 mark, as were four of the five subs used. Twelve of the 20 played in the Senior Championships of 2012, 2013 or both. A decade on, it will be difficult to bridge the gap without having added a wave of quality from the underage ranks.
Evan McIntyre has done well at corner-back, Emmanuel Shehu has been effervescent around the middle third and Jack Tully has great potential and is one of the talented marksmen the club have a knack for producing – another of those who will likely feature is Sean Johnston. Other than the few starlets mentioned, the Gaels have not bolstered their senior team of late barring the arrival of the totemic Gearoid McKiernan.
Manager Jason O’Reilly got a great tune out of them in 2017, going unbeaten in the county and all the way to an Ulster final. His first choice team this year, though, will be essentially the same as the one he picked for that game against Slaughtneil.
Last year, manager Kieran Donnelly threw McKiernan in at full-forward against Castlerahan and he was a wrecking ball. The high ball, as a tactic, became unfashionable for a long time; now, as it returns, clubs find themselves without six foot-plus defenders to counteract it and the brilliant McKiernan will likely make hay in this regard.
The Gaels may lack a little youthful energy but they have vast experience and don’t panic. They will point to the fact that they ran Ramor so close in the semi-final last year - but an outright victory would be their greatest of them all. They won’t be far away.
Manager: Jason O’Reilly
Key man: Gearoid McKiernan
The name on everyone’s lips coming into this championship will be Dara McVeety. The former Cavan senior team captain was in the prime of his career, aged 26, when he went to Australia in 2019. It was unusual for a player of his standing to step away and the timing was unfortunate as Cavan and Crosserlough both ended long famines to win championships in 2020; without doubt, had he been around, he’d have been an integral part of both squads.
McVeety is now back and the hope is that he will return to the same level he was at before he left, which once prompted manager Jimmy Higgins to refer to him as “the best player in Cavan and one of the best in Ulster”. Dara played with the Michael Cusacks club in Sydney and has kept in top shape and he showed in the recent league final that he is still a top player.
In his absence, Crosserlough have grown and the dynamics of the group have changed. Paddy Lynch and James Smith are now among the Cavan senior team’s most important players. Stephen Smith is also a permanent fixture on the county panel.
Yet much has remained constant since McVeety’s last championship match, a semi-final loss to Ramor in September 2019, too. Higgins is still the manager and as many as 13 of the players who featured that evening would be almost guaranteed starters still and are coming into their prime years.
The back-line is very settled; John Cooke and Paddy O’Reilly pick themselves, as does free-scoring David Shalvey (although he has played further forward this year). Conor Rehill owns the number six shirt, flanked by Mark Stuart and Cian Boylan, or maybe there will be positional changes and Peter Smith will slot in on the wing. It’s an exceptional defensive unit regardless.
Up front, rookie Oran Rehill has impressed, Brandon Boylan has been in fine form. Adrian Smith, so crucial when they won in 2020, has returned from injury and Pierce Smith has found his best form again. It will be fascinating to see where McVeety fits in – could Higgins throw him in close to goal alongside Lynch and put the fear of God into defences altogether?
On the face of it, and on the table, Crosserlough flopped last year but bad luck played its part too. They were beaten by the eventual champions by a point in a high-quality first round, then drew with Cavan Gaels and lost by a goal to Gowna. In other words, they were pitted against the other three teams in the top four and were within a kick of a ball of them all.
That is disappointing but far from the slump it was made out to be. Only the best teams could stop them – and just about at that. That will be the case again this year.
Manager: Jimmy Higgins
Key man: James Smith
There is an inch to the step of Gowna supporters at present and rightly so – the future stretches out before the club now, cloaked in promise. Of all of the big guns in the county, Gowna are the ones consistently punching above their weight.
Kingscourt, Cavan Gaels and Ramor have towns to draw from while Crosserlough is a large parish with three national schools. Gowna alone source their players from a very small rural area.
From unlikely terrain, they mined gold; the club secured seven championships between 1988 and 2002. It was probably to be expected that a fallow period would follow and in truth, they did well to hold on to senior status during some poor years.
For quite a few years now, though, it has been clear that the cavalry were coming. The troops at the front managed to hold the line and now that the reinforcements have arrived, they have the look of an army on the front foot again.
The great Cavan Gaels team managed 12 finals in 14 years from 2001 on, winning nine titles, which made them the most successful club side since Cornafean in the 1930s and early 1940s. That was built on the foundation of extraordinary underage success, until it reached a point of near absurdity where there were county panellists who could not be certain of their place in the Gaels’ starting team. While other clubs have come with strong underage sides in the meantime, Gowna’s production line is the most impressive since the late JJ Reilly and others were overseeing the talent factory at Terry Coyle Park.
Last year, Gowna won the U20 and Minor Division 1 titles as part of the Southern Gaels amalgamation, adding the U15 Division 1 title on their own. That was a high water mark but came off the back of sustained success; in 2020 they also won the Division 1 Minor Championship easily.
The one they crave now is the Oliver Plunkett. They were close last year, forcing Ramor to a replay in the final, having had enough chances to win the first day. Their overall age profile suggests they are on the up.
Picking the forward line will be very difficult. Management prefer Cian Madden, a county forward, at wing-back but that still leaves the likes of Conor Madden, Oisin Pierson, Tiarnan Madden, Daire Madden, Conor Casey, Robbie Fitzpatrick, Aaron Brady and TJ Fitzpatrick in contention.
They have been top heavy with attackers in recent years but the emergence of young defenders Fionán and Cormac Brady and defensive midfielder/centre-back Ryan Brady to supplement the experience of Mark McKeever and Ryan McGahern has eased concerns here, with the promising county U20 starter Eoghan Hartin ready to break through. And that’s not to mention Conor Brady who, last year, was the best of the lot.
All in all, Gowna tick a lot of boxes. Their time is coming but, like Kerry discovered before making their breakthrough two weeks ago, the first one will be the hardest to win.
Managers: Dermot McCabe/Fintan Reilly
Key man: Conor Brady
Killygarry are a mystery. They are a side full of talent who have pulled off the odd big victory but haven’t won a match in the knock-out stages of the Senior Championship since 2015 and haven’t played in a senior final in 51 years.
Their struggles in tight matches have been well documented. The last two quarter-finals they reached, in 2017 and 2019, they lost by a point and in a replay respectively.
In 2020, they lost two group games by a point, one by two points and drew another. Last year, they lost their first three group games by a single point.
The good news is that while there are naturally questions about their ability to close out these games, there is no doubting their ability. Since 2017, Killygarry have beaten Cavan Gaels, Ramor, Gowna and Kingscourt in championship matches. Five of their team were on the Cavan senior panel at one stage or another in 2022, namely Cian Reilly, Martin Reilly, Conor Smith, Oisin Brady and Darragh Lovett.
Reilly and Lovett were both named on the U20 ‘Top 20’ nationally on the back of their performances for Cavan U20s in their run to the Ulster final.
While they were short-handed in the league, one would still have expected them to have done better; they won just twice in 12 matches and ultimately survived in Division 1 in a relegation play-off against Killinkere.
Talent is not an issue, particularly in attack. MacRory Cup winners Darragh Kennedy and Mattie McKenna have also been on the Cavan senior panel in the not-too-distant past and are coming into their primes. Teenager Kevin Lovett is another precocious young player who has broken into the team.
If they can get their strongest team out, Killygarry should be the ones leading the chasing pack behind the likes of Ramor, Gowna, Crosserlough, Cavan Gaels and Co but 2022 is a huge year for them.
They got the bit between their teeth at the tail end of last year and managed to see off Lacken and Castlerahan to retain their status; now it’s time to kick on and silence the critics.
Manager: Jody Devine
Key man: Conor Smith
After over 20 years in the doldrums, during which they even spent some time idling in the lower reaches of Division 2, Kingscourt came roaring back in 2010 to win the championship out of nowhere.
That victory heralded a mini golden age. Since then, they have reached finals in 2012 (lost a replay), 2014 (lost by a point), 2015 (won) and 2020 (lost replay) and, even when written off, have consistently proven themselves a very dangerous side in championship.
Five of that 2010 side remain on board – Shane Gray, Barry Tully, Philip Tinnelly, Barry Reilly and Alan Clarke, with a further five – James Farrelly, Padraig Faulkner, Noel McIntrye, Peter Corrigan and Cian McArdle from the team who played in the 2015 final, along with Joe Dillon, who missed that match but had played all year. There is certainly no shortage of experience.
Clarke didn’t play last year but has returned while Reilly also took a break this year but came back during the recent league campaign. Both very different players remain integral to the Stars’ hopes.
In recent years, their Achilles Heel has been in attack. While they have mounted runs in the championship at times, their scores in their final championship match in the last six seasons tell a sorry tale.
In 2016, they scored 0-7 against Ramor in the quarter-final. In 2017, 0-8 against Cavan Gaels. The following year, 0-7 against Castlerahan in the quarters and, incredibly, the same tally against the Gaels in the 2019 quarter-final.
In 2020, they made it to a championship final but only managed 0-8 in the replay against Crosserlough. Last year, they were beaten by Gowna in the semi, scoring 0-11.
Those are truly shocking figures; the Stars’ attack has been nullified in their biggest game of the year six seasons in a row, with not a single goal. Enter, stage left, Jordan Morris.
The former Nobber player, who started his underage career with Kingscourt before moving, is the sort of free-scoring, powerful goal poacher they needed and could potentially transform this Kingscourt side.
The outstanding Morris has settled in well and it will be fascinating to see how he does in the Cavan championship. Kingscourt have benefitted from some kind draws in recent years but it doesn’t get much tougher than Ramor in the first round this year. That match will tell a lot about where they are at.
Manager: Owen Lennon
Star man: Padraig Faulkner
A recent high water mark for Lacken was the ACFL Division 1 league title they secured in October, 2016, with a big win over Kingscourt in the final. That year, they had been beaten by a point in a replayed SFC quarter-final against Castlerahan, who went on to lose the final themselves in a replay.
That shows how close Lacken were but, in the meantime, the Celtics have slumped. From 2017 to 2021 inclusive, Lacken have won four matches from 22 in the Senior Championship, not including relegation play-offs.
The strange thing is that there was no major exodus. Of the team who played in that league final against the Stars six years ago, nine featured in the recent league match against Killinkere for example – Kevin Shanaghy, David Wilson, Micheál Shanaghy, Shane Finnegan, Philip Moynagh, Stephen Brady, Paul Leddy, James Moynagh and Conor Finnegan.
Throw in Raymond and Thomas Galligan, who were on county duty recently, and it is essentially the same team, with potentially 11 of the 14 outfield players. Into the side have come Killian Galligan, who has established himself as a free-scoring target man, and former Cavan minor player Ryan Coyle, who has been playing well this year, while Shane Moynagh is also a regular.
For years, Lacken relied on Raymond and Thomas Galligan and Niall McKiernan to do the bulk of the scoring. McKiernan has stepped away but Killian Galligan has emerged as a terrific asset close to goal to alleviate that loss somewhat, as has the return from Canada of Conor Finnegan.
Still, scores were hard to come by in the league (from the top 11 in the table, only Ballinagh scored less) but the return of the two Galligans will help greatly in this regard. Lacken bottomed out last year in the championship when they were wide open at the back but numbers and spirits are high this year and they should be stronger.
League form wasn’t hectic – they finished eighth, beating nobody above them – but they have avoided the elite sides in the first round and will see the Lavey game as a winnable contest.
Manager Mickey O’Connor (Abbeylara) is assisted by selectors Joe Crowe and Mark Hyland.
Manager: Mickey O’Connor
Key man: Thomas Galligan
When winning the intermediate title in 2019, Laragh were brilliant. In preceding years, they had tended to look rudderless, a side long on ability but short on confidence and toughness in tight situations.
That year, they grew up. Individuals raised their games; teams need to know who their leaders are and there was now no doubt captain Fergal McKenna, playmaker and finisher Paul Smith, powerful athlete Jack McKenna were now the go-to men along with target man Paddy Rudden and midfielder Shane O’Rourke.
We fancied them to be the first intermediate side probably since Ballinagh and Lavey (2007 and 2009 IFC winners respectively) to really establish themselves and kick on but it didn’t happen. In 2020, there was no relegation and it was just as well – Laragh were dreadfully below par.
Last year was more like it. The high point was a very impressive win over neighbours Lavey, an evening when the excellent Fergal O’Rourke gave an almost spooky kick-out display.
They had draws with Ballinagh and Lacken, ran Crosserlough to four points and lost in the quarter-final by the same margin to Cavan Gaels.
Their league form was poor, with just three wins from 12 matches, albeit they managed to retain their Division 1 status with a smash-and-grab against Cootehill.
They open their campaign against Butlersbridge this time around. That’s a must-win game if this team are to realise their potential but, so far, it must be said they have been disappointing since returning to senior ranks.
Manager: Darren Greenan
Key man: Jack McKenna
Lavey are probably the ultimate championship team in recent years. They have generally operated in Division 2 of the All-County Football League and don’t tend to pull up any trees during the early part of the year but they have the ability to turn it on for the championship.
For six successive seasons, Lavey have made the knock-out stages and they have usually given a good account of themselves when they get there, reaching two semi-finals (drawing one) and losing an epic quarter-final in extra time in 2020.
Last year, they seemed to have gone back. A freakish win over Castlerahan (5-5 to 2-11) was followed by a heavy loss to Laragh but a round three win over Shercock secured their passage to the last eight, where they turned in a pretty insipid display against Kingscourt.
This year, Kevin McDonnell, who always get a good tune out of this squad, is back at the helm and after a slow start to the league, they found form. County men Chris Conroy and Gerard Smith will be back for the championship which will lift things hugely.
Shane Tierney and Karl Duke are still a serious handful close to goal and Danny Cusack is a rock at the back behind Paul Gilchreest in the engine room. What is most exciting, though, is the emergence of Aaron McCabe.
Formerly a striker with Longford Town in the League of Ireland, McCabe has returned to Gaelic and has been flying. He gives the New Inns men an extra dimension up front.
Scoring forwards are worth their weight in gold and McCabe’s addition is huge for Lavey. McDonnell, SFC-winning captain in 1992 with Ramor, is assisted by Denn’s Martin Cahill and Lavey’s Catriona Smith.
Manager: Kevin McDonnell
Key man: Gerard Smith
Is the glass half full or half empty? Rumours have been swirling around that all is not well in the Mullahoran camp – yet they have already picked up silverware in the Division 2 league.
They lost four matches of the regulation 13 – yet they were without two county players, something only Lavey in Division 2 also had to contend with.
They ‘only’ beat two junior teams to claim the league title – yet they still beat them, Drumlane with a bit of style, Arva with plenty of grit.
So which is it? The reality is that we won’t know until the championship throws in but results in the last couple of years have not been encouraging. After being relegated in 2017, they bounced back to win the Intermediate Championship in emphatic fashion and took the scalps of the Down and Derry champions to reach the ensuing Ulster Club final.
There was a sense that they could kick on and re-assert themselves in senior, with a talented crop of young players having proven themselves that season. But it hasn’t happened since. Midfielder PP Galligan and forward Ray Lynch have emigrated. Paul and Philip Brady has retired and the word is that Enda O’Reilly, one of the most consistent ball-winners and score-getters in the county for a decade, may have stepped away, too.
So there are a lot of questions around the Dreadnoughts coming into the championship. Their record in senior football since their return is very poor – aside from relegation play-offs, they’ve played 14 matches, won three and lost 11.
That has to rank as under-achievement given the talent there. Killian Brady is the pulse of the team and sets the tone. The back-line is athletic and tough, with Callum Mussi, Cian O’Reilly and Colm O’Reilly among the stand-outs. Up front, Cormac O’Reilly is expected to do most of the heavy lifting, assisted by Gavin Brady, who has had an excellent season.
Cavan U21 player Caoláin O’Reilly has emerged as an important ball-winner in the middle third, too.
Mullahoran face familiar foes Ballinagh in the opening round and will see that as a winnable contest. A victory there could potentially generate momentum and championship tradition can never be overlooked.
But on all known form, notably the quarter-final against Gowna last year, there is a gap there and a 13th senior title seems beyond them at present.
Manager: Shane McCabe
Key man: Cormac O’Reilly
A parallel could be drawn between Crosserlough in 2021 and Ramor United in 2022. Both came into the year as senior champions and were impressive in the group stages of the following league.
Both ran up a sizeable half-time lead in the knock-out stages and were caught – and in the case of Crosserlough, a tailspin followed and they failed to get out of their group in the championship.
For Crosserlough, that reckoning came in the league final against Gowna, when they were seven points ahead at half-time. Ramor recently blew an eight-point interval advantage against Cavan Gaels in the league semi-final, which took the shine off a very impressive run of 11 games unbeaten, achieved with a long injury list.
On the team which won the championship last year, the key men were, in no order, Liam Brady, Mark Magee, Damien Barkey, Brían O’Connell, Jack and James Brady, Sean McEvoy and Ado Cole.
All of those missed games at one stage or another during the recent league.
O’Connell hasn’t played yet this season due to injury while McEvoy, heading to the States on a soccer scholarship, proved himself a clutch player last year and a talent like his cannot be replaced just like that. Conor Bradley, Cavan Player of the Year in 2016, has returned and would be expected to offset McEvoy’s loss to some degree but he, too, has been injured, as has Barkey, who missed the Cavan Gaels game.
The Ramor defence was sealed as tight as a drum for the first eight league games, during which they kept seven clean sheets and conceded an average of just nine points per game. However, in the five games since, they have kept just one clean sheet and leaked three goals on three occasions, a run which coincided with industrious midfielder Enda Maguire heading to the US.
It is always hard to retain the championship. Castlerahan, in 2019, are the only side to manage it in the last 13 years. If Ramor do it and claim a third title in seven seasons, it would mark them down as one of the great club sides. To do so, they will need all their big guns firing. Will they? Why not?
Manager: John Brady
Key man: Ado Cole