Preview: Stars can never be dismissed but Gowna are the safer bet
SFC final preview
On all known form, there can only be one winner in Sunday’s county final and that is Gowna – but form is only one factor in analysing how a match might go.
While the defending champions didn’t show their best stuff in the group stage, they have steadily picked things up and there were mitigating factors, notably the unavailability of quite a few players while others were just recovering from injury.
A quirk of this Gowna side is that while their peak velocity can run anyone else off the road, they don’t seem to have a high cruising speed. Last year, including a very winnable Ulster Club game, they had four wins in nine championship matches; coming into the semi-final, their record for this campaign was three wins in five.
But that semi-final changed everything. If there were any doubts about the wellbeing of Gowna, about whether they had kicked on to a higher level as would have been expected for a team with so many young players, they were dispelled in style as they blew Crosserlough away.
Tactically, they won the battle while their players rose to the occasion physically as well, dominating breaking ball and playing with more purpose at both ends of the pitch.
That they recovered from that freakish early five-point deficit also spoke volumes; there were excuses there if they wanted them but the hunger to win took over.
It’s easy to make the case for the holders, which is where we will start. The team’s greatest asset is their power and pace in the middle eight. Tiarnan and Cian Madden are the lungs of the side, Ryan Brady runs hard, straight lines and is very difficult to stop.
Conor Brady has had an injury-disrupted year but is highly athletic and strong and loves to bomb forward. Conor Casey is a mercurial talent, a real speedster, although he hasn’t found the consistency to match his ability just yet.
And Ryan Donohoe has taken his game to a new level this year, adding more explosiveness, and was magnificent last time out.
Gowna also have a bomb defuser in Cormac Brady and ball-players like Robbie Fitzpatrick and Conor Madden - whose goalscoring record is up there with anyone – in what is a very potent line-up.
Joint-manager Fintan Reilly made the point this week that while they’re young overall, Gowna are experienced and he was right – they know what it’s like to win a county final, to draw one and to lose one and the feeling is that they could not be in a better place than they are at present coming into this final, with some bookmakers currently offering them as short as 3/10 to become only the second side since 2009 to retain the Oliver Plunkett Cup.
Does that mean Kingscourt have little chance? Not necessarily. History tells us that the Stars tend to run it very close when they get to the big day.
The likes of Barry Reilly, Alan Clarke, Barry Tully and Shane Gray are heading into their eighth county final including replays and while they have ‘only’ two medals to show for it, they have never been far away.
The Stars have played in 17 county finals including replays since the club broke through in 1980 and have only lost five.
Two of those losses (1999 to Gowna and 2014 to Cavan Gaels) have been by a point, one was by four points (Mullahoran in the 2012 replay, a last minute goal flattering the winners) and one by five (2020 replay against Crosserlough). The only final where they didn’t show up was in 1985, when they were well beaten by Ramor.
When we talk about tradition, that’s what we mean. The custom in the club, handed down, is that Kingscourt are not over-awed by making a county final, that they expect to show up and win these things.
And that counts for a lot – there is an expectancy there. Players know that just making a final is not a notable achievement.
While much is made of the fact that so many of the Gowna team (17 of last year’s panel, no less) are sons of former senior medallists, Kingscourt’s pedigree is impressive too. Players like Sean Burke, Jordan Morris, Padraig Faulkner, Barry Reilly, Joe Dillon, James Farrelly all come from Senior-winning stock so it’s not as if this whole caper is new to the Kingscourt lads.
Morris may have transferred from Nobber but he started his football journey with the Stars; when they won the title in 2010, he was on the team bus, driven by his Grandad.
It must be noted that being competitive, not suffering from stage fright, not being afraid to win if the opportunity presents itself – these are the bare essentials one would expect of a serious team in a final and do not necessarily indicate that Kingscourt will win it.
They beat Cavan Gaels twice this year and Ramor United in the semi-final as well as Killygarry in a dead-rubber round four game, having earlier made the league final, but they have not yet put it together for the full hour, which perhaps hints at a higher performance ceiling than their recent showings would suggest.
To get the job done, Kingscourt need to put in their best performance of the year but the good news for their supporters is that they have generally been able to raise their game for one or two signature performances each year, even when they haven’t been going that well.
Last year, it arrived in round four when they were brilliant in beating Gowna in Killinkere on a day when they were missing Morris.
In 2020, they stunned a fancied Cavan Gaels in the semi-final and should have won the final the first day and in 2019, they thumped Killygarry in Breffni Park in round three.
The big imponderable here is Morris. It appears likely, but not definite, Gowna will assign Cormac Brady to mark him and that will be a key battle. Morris is extremely quick and full of skill and a lot rests on him.
Aside from the Meath star, Joe Dillon and Barry Reilly will need top performances but both are capable of wrecking defences, in different ways, on their day.
Gowna’s middle-third strongmen can assert control in games but Kingscourt have their own powerhouses in Faulkner and Clarke, who will need to break even at worst. Behind them, Paddy Meade, a county panellist, will have to dominate his sector if the underdogs are to win.
There is no particular trend in the head-to-head; in the last 10 years, they have met five times in championship football, Kingscourt winning three to Gowna’s two.
Could stalemate be the answer to the riddle? This year, we have seen just two draws in the whole championship, which is highly unusual – the average is give to six and in 2018, there were nine. Sometimes, a draw is like a magnet for referees in finals – usually, nobody, not least the county board, is too perturbed if the whole thing is run again – and that cannot be ruled out.
Given all we know, Gowna losing this county final would be a sizeable surprise were they to play any of the teams in the other side of the draw – apart, that is, from Kingscourt, one of the few clubs who can match the men from the lough shore for inherent belief and swagger. That is what makes this an interesting clash.
That said, though, while the potential is staring us in the face, so much has to go right for the east Cavanmen while Gowna are outstanding and hold the aces; simply put, they have a lot of really good players in really good form. The champions, then, are the safer bet to hold on to their crown and usher in a new era of dominance.