Preview: Close IFC semi-finals in store

Intermediate Championship semi-finals preview

Ballyhaise v Cootehill Celtic

Ballyhaise won this competition in 2015 and were in the final in 2017 and 2021 and the semi-final in 2020. There is a school of thought out there, and there is a degree of validity to it, that were it not for a fiendish draw in 2016 (in the relegation pay-offs, Ballyhaise lost a replay to Killygarry only to then, freakishly, run into no less a side than Cavan Gaels, losing a relatively close game) they could have established themselves in senior ranks.

They have done so in league football; this year, they finished third in Division 1 with nine wins and a draw from their 12 group games, including wins over four of the Senior Championship quarter-finalists and a draw with another.

Their championship form to date has been solid but they haven’t ripped up any trees either. They had good wins over Belturbet and Cornafean, neither of whom qualified, and Bailieborough before resting a lot of players as they lost to Castlerahan in round four.

The tricky thing for Ballyhaise is that they are judged entirely on one match. After over 20 years in senior, they slipped back to intermediate and have been in the final five times since 2008, winning it just the once, in 2015.

Last year, they lost the final by a point. Is there scar tissue there? There probably has to be and it won’t be banished until they win it, which will not be easy given that key forwards Padraig Moore and Kevin Tierney have been on the treatment table of late.

Of course, David Brady and his brother Michael have been in excellent form but if Moore and Tierney are both playing, Ballyhaise are red hot favourites to win the Gilroy Cup. If just one is fit, they could still do it but if both are out, it becomes a difficult task.

Cootehill, meanwhile, come into this match with huge momentum on their side. They had a tough league campaign in Division 1, drawing one game and losing 11 before narrowly falling to Laragh in the relegation play-off.

In their opener in the championship, they were poor when losing by eight points to Templeport but they have showed impressive resilience to turn things around since then. Hard-fought wins over local rivals Drumgoon, Cornafean and Ballymachugh secured their place in the last eight and in wet conditions, they turned in an outstanding performance to beat Templeport by 23 points, completing an extraordinary turnaround in a few weeks.

Key to their victory was the playmaking of Enda Hessin, who was back to his best. John McCutcheon remains the pulse and the leader; at the back, Sean O’Connor was excellent while the attacking game plan sees them combine a running game with direct ball to full-forward Shane Sexton.

The teams met in the Intermediate Championship final in 2014. Interestingly, of the 21 players Cootehill used in that final, eight – Ryan Carroll, Sean O’Connor, Dean Connolly, John McCutcheon, Enda Hessin, Stevie O’Connor, Dermie Connolly and Mark Mullen – featured in the quarter-final 10 days ago.

Ballyhaise actually have nine who saw game time in that decider still on board – Fiachra McGoldrick, Sean McCormack, Conor Lyons, Barry Reilly, Martin Conaty, Padraig Moore, Shane McKiernan, Marcus Duffy and Kevin Tierney – but some are now injured or less likely to feature.

McCormack came back late this year but featured the last day and could be deployed to add physique to what is not the tallest defence. Around the middle, David Brady as stated has been in brilliant form and was well supported by the excellent Eoin Clarke in the quarter-final win over Denn.

Ballyhaise have introduced plenty of fresh blood, with Jack Maguire standing out and Killian Brady and Fiachra Dowd also featuring. However, while Darren Reilly is exceptional, the sense is their defence is not as watertight as it was in the past, particularly around 2014 and 2015.

Cootehill, too, have introduced a wave of young talent, with Kian Cooper, Ben McGahan and Rian Delaney into the starting side straight out of minor. All three are precocious talents; Rian, incidentally, is a grandson of club and county legend Charlie Gallagher.

This is a tricky match to call. Ballyhaise are rightly favourites but Cootehill have improved bit by bit and looked like a side playing at their peak last time out. A line of form through Cornafean suggests the Annalee Park side are stronger but of course football doesn’t work that way.

When the sides met in the quarter-final last year, Ballyhaise ran out easy winners (2-15 to 1-9). This one is highly unlikely to be as one-sided and the Celts will feel they can get at this Ballyhaise rearguard - but the form of the Brady brothers might just see Ballyhaise over the line.

Verdict: Ballyhaise

Castlerahan v Cuchulainns

This is the tie of the round, featuring two sides who have consistently been at the business end of championship football in recent seasons.

Cuchulainns have been in four of the last five Intermediate semi-finals and one final – and the odd year out was 2020, when they failed to qualify for the knock-out stages but actually beat eventual comfortable winners Ballinagh in the group. Castlerahan, meanwhile, reached five county senior finals in succession from 2015 to 2019 inclusive, winning the latter two.

They lost the Senior Championship semi-final in extra time to eventual winners Crosserlough in 2020 but last year, their form collapsed and, unthinkably, they returned to intermediate ranks for the first time since winning it in 2001.

Cuchulainns come into this match in fine form, unbeaten in five games. They drew with Castlerahan the first day and edged out Bailieborough by a point in round two before the draw fell kindly for them and they got Killeshandra and Belturbet in rounds three and four, two sides who did not win a game in the group.

In the quarter-final, though, they really clicked. In what was a potentially sticky local derby, they blitzed neighbours Killinkere, with Bryan Magee returning to top form with a spectacular haul of 2-12.

They have the look of a team who are coming to the boil at the right time. With eight of last year’s U20 Division 1 finalists in the mix, they are a youthful outfit but they also have a lot of experience, with the long-serving quartet of Conor Smith, Adrian Taite, Chris Tully and Ruairi O’Connell coming off the bench in round four. Taite and starting corner-back Killian Lynch both played on the 2005 IFC-winning side.

When it comes to experience, though, no team can touch Castlerahan. The spine of their side have played in five or more county senior finals.

Yes, they’ve been on the road a long time and amassed a lot of mileage but the sense is that their relegation was a freak and they could still hold their own at senior. If league form can be trusted, it backs up this point; they finished sixth in Division 1.

Former manager Donal Keogan did a great job, winning the league and championship double twice, but he had a core group who he trusted implicitly and did not dip into the panel much, using just one sub in the 2018 and 2019 final wins.

Since then, they have lost a lot of good players and new bainisteoir Brian Donohoe has experimented, giving game time to 27 players in the five championship matches thus far.

Castlerahan have introduced a couple of impressive young defenders in Euan Henry and Seán Óg McGearty but when the ball is thrown in, they will be the older side. This has the makings of a classic, a youthful, hungry and well-schooled Cuchulainns against a Castlerahan side freshened up but still led by the warriors of the last decade – the O’Connells, Kiernan, Wright, Cooney, Flanagan et al.

Much has changed since the drawn game in round one. Evan Doughty, scorer of seven of Cuchulainns’ eight points that day, is in a new playmaking role. Along with Magee and county man Niall Carolan, this trio are crucial.

Castlerahan, though, showed that day that the desire has not waned. The Oisins – Kiernan and O’Connell – have been in great form and as a unit, they have the know-how to plot their course through a campaign. There should be a big game in them, too. A draw seems very possible but if we have to call it, Castlerahan by a whisker.

Verdict: Castlerahan