Slow burner of a championship ready to ignite

SFC quarter-finals preview

This has been a slow-burner of a championship to date but it may just catch light this weekend. PAUL FITZPATRICK previews this weekend’s four Senior Football Championship quarter-finals.

Cavan Gaels v Gowna

In our opinion, this is the tie of the round. There is something special about these clashes; it’s town versus country, the blue and white against the green and red, two distinct and fiercely-held traditions colliding.

Gowna won their first Senior Championship in 1988 and added four more up to the end of 1999.By then, though, the Gaels were coming. In 2000, Gowna held them off; in 2001, the ‘townies’ won their first in a generation but Gowna came roaring back a year later and that win was celebrated probably more lustily than any.

To this point, the Oliver Plunkett Cup has yet to return to the lake shore. Cavan Gaels took over, adding seven titles in the next nine seasons. They subsequently claimed two more, in 2014 and 2017. Has the wheel now turned?

Gowna who are the younger side but, counter-intuitively, the Gaels have looked hungrier. Gowna will feel they should have won the title in the drawn final last year but they have shown nothing like the freewheeling form which carried them to wins over Killygarry, Lacken, Crosserlough, Shercock, Mullahoran and Kingscourt back then.

Injuries have not helped but there is a wider malaise around the team. The general feeling was that a coronation was inevitable for Gowna in the near future but sport doesn’t work that way. While their rookie players from last year are a year older, they have introduced two more 18-year-olds to the starting team so collectively, they remain very young.

A few sides have broken through with a similar age profile in their groups – Crosserlough in 2020, Ramor in 2016 – but the only one to dominate has been that aforementioned Cavan Gaels crop. They beat Gowna in 2001 with an extraordinarily young side, which held the competition in a vice-like grip for over a decade.

The Gaels have now not won the title since 2017, their longest famine since 2001. They have not introduced a huge amount in the way of young talent since – the majority of the team are over the 30-mark – but they have brought in Gearoid McKiernan, who has been devastating.

In recent years, the Gaels have rarely had their full team. None of the leading clubs have had as many injury problems so they were due a break; so far this term, they have had the least injury issues of any of the main contenders.

Gowna began the competition as many people’s favourites but their results – a loss to Killygarry, a lucky win against Laragh, a draw with Lavey and a loss to Kingscourt – have been dire, with performances matching that, barring a spell against the Stars when they clicked. Their fall from grace is reflected in the fact that they have drifted out to 7/1 in the betting.

The recent ‘will they/won’t they’ sideshow over a rumoured challenge to the competition

regulations may prove a distraction or may do no harm. They would have probably preferred this game outside of Breffni – the Gaels’ strike rate is significantly lower on the road – but there is a nagging sense that they may leave their group form behind them.

If they can get a handle on McKiernan, they’ll be halfway there but the way Alan Clarke bullied their back-line last time out doesn’t bode well in that regard. Still, the potential is there and holes can be picked in the Gaels’ form, too. Gowna for the upset.

Verdict: Gowna

Killygarry v Kingscourt

These are familiar foes. This quarter-final will be the seventh meeting since 2015; the pair have played at every stage of the competition barring round one and the final.

Kingscourt have won five of the six to date, with a one-sided Killygarry win in a group game in 2017 the outlier, and that victory was subsequently avenged in the semi-final.

The Stars have struggled in front of the posts when it has come to the crunch in recent years. A lack of firepower is not a trait one would associate with them but they have not produced that many top class inside forwards, certainly not compared with other leading clubs.

The return of the outstanding Jordan Morris was expected to sharpen that blunt edge but while he started well, injury has intervened and he was missing the last day. Kingscourt were completely written off prior to their final group game and were out to 33/1 for the title but they came out breathing fire, manager Eoin Lennon’s team talk (“Are you finished yet?!”) ringing in their airs and Alan Clarke running amok in the absence of Morris as they stunned Gowna.

The word is that Paddy Meade, who suffered an ACL injury in last year’s semi-final, has been back training so the Stars should be strengthened. They face a Killygarry side, though, who have certainly turned a corner.

Having lost a lot of close matches over a couple of seasons, Killygarry finally got over the line against Lacken in round 4 last season and backed that up with a big win over Castlerahan in the subsequent relegation play-off.

In the past, when they have taken big scalps – Cavan Gaels and Ramor among them – they have failed to back it up but this year, the win over Gowna was followed by victories over Ballinagh and Butlersbridge (admittedly the weaker sides in the competition) and a draw with Ramor.

Their forward line has been very impressive, with teenager Daragh Lovett settling in well and Conor Smith unmarkable against Gowna. At the back, Cian Reilly has been immense too.

The bookies find it hard to split them, with Killgarry slight favourites at 5/6.

However, with Smith having been on the treatment table again of late, it could swing things Kingscourt’s way, especially if Morris and Barry Reilly are fit for the full hour.

Verdict: Kingscourt

Crosserlough v Lacken

Lacken are the story of the Senior Championship so far. In a strange season in which most teams seem to have gone backwards due to injuries and loss of form, Lacken have made a giant leap forward.

Yes, they were a shambles last year and were coming from a very low base but the Celtics’ improvement has been dramatic. They have been handed a very tough draw - Lavey, Crosserlough, Kingscourt and Cavan Gaels – and negotiated it well.

The comfortable win over Kingscourt was very notable as the Stars had pummelled them 12 months ago and Lacken were without key man Thomas Galligan, who is unfortunately out for the season now. They also gave Crosserlough a good argument and after being miles behind at half-time, were unlucky not to grab a draw against the Gaels.

However, Crosserlough in the quarters is a tough draw. The Lough have a better record in knock-out games, having won the last three quarter-finals they played in (2018-20 inclusive) and at 1/5, they are the shortest price favourites of the weekend.

For their part, Lacken have been in the Senior Championship last eight on lots of occasions but haven’t pushed on to the semis since 2001.

This will be no gimme; Lacken are fit and well-organised and will be hopeful that Killian Galligan will again trouble Crosserlough while brother Raymond has been in superb place-kicking form.

Conor Finnegan has also been going well, although Donal Finnegan will be a loss having picked up a serious injury. If Killian is held and Crosserlough don’t give away many frees, it’s hard to see how Lacken can combine a match-winning tally.

Jimmy Higgins’s side, meanwhile, have come through a sticky patch and if the annihilation of Laragh is anything to go on, they are coming back to themselves. Crosserlough, despite a few injuries, will be expected to have too much. Any other result would be a seismic upset.

Verdict: Crosserlough

Ramor United v Mullahoran

The champions enter the knock-out stages full of defiance but with a loose grip on their crown. The Virginia men have had to cope with a crazy injury list, with anything up to a dozen players on the sidelines at times.

And it’s not ‘just’ squad players – on the team that won the championship last year, James Brady, Brían O’Connell and Sean McEvoy were three of the most important members. McEvoy is in America pursuing his soccer career and his studies, Brady is out for the year and O’Connell hasn’t featured all season.

Full-forward Ado Cole also missed a game in the group stages; for that match, against Butlersbridge, they were missing their entire forward line from last year’s county final, plus Conor Bradley. The result of it all is that Ramor are struggling for scores, registering 0-10, 0-11 and 0-11 in their last three matches.

The good news is that the defence, led by Damien Barkey and the outstanding Jack Brady, remains rock solid. In goals, Liam Brady is playing brilliantly and the championship-winning midfield pairing of Enda Maguire and Larry Caffrey remains intact, with Gareth Mannion now in the mix there too.

The question is, can Ramor win the championship while missing the sort of attacking talent they are?

Mullahoran, this week, will be asking a different question entirely – can Ramor win the quarter-final, let alone win the title. That is the sort of bullish approach an underdog needs to take and Mullahoran are that, priced as 3/1 outsiders.

But the Dreadnoughts will fancy this one. While their head to head record against Ramor is poor (they lost by 2-20 to 0-5 in the group stage last year), they come into this game with confidence, having picked up three group wins, following on from winning Division 2 in the league.

This, though, is a major step-up in quality and Mullahoran have found the going tough when they have played the better sides in league and championship in recent years.

It’s notable that their three victories to date were against sides who did not qualify for the quarter-finals. The last time Mullahoran either won a quarter-final or beat a side who made the last eight that year was 2015; in the intervening six years, Ramor have made four semi-finals, three finals and won it twice.

Much will depend on whether Cormac O’Reilly, their go-to forward, is fit to start and play the full hour. If he isn’t, they will be very dependent on Gavin Brady and Enda O’Reilly, both of whom having been playing well, for scores.

At the other end, while Ramor are blunted, they still pack enough of a punch to keep Mullahoran honest. An upset is not beyond the realms of possibility but the champions are a seasoned bunch who are in the habit of winning championship matches and they will still fully believe that they can retain the title.

Verdict: Ramor United