Cockhill Celtic will reclaim the Ulster Senior League title if they manage to avoid defeat in Sunday’s climatic concluding fixture against second-placed Fanad United at Maginn Park in Buncrana on Sunday afternoon (kick-off 2pm).
Two weeks ago the respective sides managed by Dermot O’Brien and Ollie Horgan managed comfortable seven-goal victories to set up the intriguing finale. O’Brien’s Cockhill hammered Bonagee United when frontmen Aidan O’Donnell and Paul McKinney both grabbed hat-tricks at Dry Arch Park in a 7-0 win. On an afternoon when Kildrum Tigers’ aspirations fell at Leckview Park following a scoreless draw against Letterkenny Rovers, Fanad moved into the position of only challengers when they battered Killea, also 7-0.
Horgan is aware this weekend is a simple case of win or bust. Three points against a Cockhill side his team have already managed to beat in the Donegal News League Cup final, when PJ Hagan scored the winning goal in a 2-1 win, is necessary to force a play-off as goal difference is deemed inconsequential. With 13 Ulster Senior League championships in their decorated history, compared to Cockhill’s one, those in and around Triaghalough will have warm memories of their last late charge to clinch the title.
Hagan will miss the game as he is due to go underneath the knife at the Santry Sports Clinic in Dublin next month with a knee problem that could be anything from cartilage to medial ligament. Denis Boyle is a doubt having hobbled off on Sunday in a black day for the club.
But for a team who have such a fine tradition in the FAI Intermediate Cup, which has made them a familiar name more so than their titles at home, Fanad were dissected by Letterkenny Rovers on Sunday 4-0. Horgan will obviously be looking for a response come Sunday but will understand the scale of the task when it’s considered Cockhill have been defeated just once in the league all season.
In 2006, Fanad trailed Kildrum by 21 points with seven games in hand in an extremely busy campaign having been involved in the FAI Senior and Intermediate Cups, as well as their domestic duties. However, seven straight wins, some simple and others much less so, forced a play-off against a Kildrum team who had been sitting idle for a month and two Arthur Lynch goals in front of 1,500 onlookers in Ballyare sealed a comeback 2-1 play-off win.
But in many ways it’s been a decent campaign all in for those from the peninsula when it’s considered they more than held their own in their debut campaign in the Newstalk A-Championship, collecting 18 points from their 14 outings and finishing fourth from eight in Pool One, which is the northern section.
“I suppose if you had’ve told us earlier in the season that we’d have cup in the bag and an outside chance of winning the league come the last day when we would probably have taken that,” Horgan said. “But Sunday was probably the worst performance from a Fanad side in a long number of years. Barring perhaps James Gallagher in goal and their back four Letterkenny had a very inexperienced team on, but they destroyed us on the day and you have to congratulate them for that. Letterkenny were very good on the day.
“Maybe if last weekend hadn’t have happened then we might fancy our chances going to Cockhill but it’s a huge ask. They’re probably the best attacking side in the league and although I’m sure we will improve somewhat, whether we can improve that much remains to be seen but we know that we need.”
Cockhill, for their part, have had a long season. The 3-1 win at Terryland Park against Galway United in the EA Sports Cup and the tie that followed at home to holders Sligo Rovers really put the Buncrana side on the map. But closer to home they’ve shown good consistency, having reached both cup finals and regained their spot at the top of the league table. With the most points and goals and tightest defence they are the team to beat. They led the previous meeting with Fanad 3-0 at half-time but had to be content with a 3-3 draw and that in itself acts as a word of warning.
“It’s been difficult for us because we found teams trying that bit harder to get the scalp of beating Cockhill this year,” O’Brien said. “Beating Cockhill would grab the headlines for a lot of clubs in the league. We can lose on Sunday and still have another chance to win the league, but we won’t be thinking about that.
“We know if we perform to our best that not many teams will live with us and I’ve no doubt that if produce our best on Sunday we’ll get something out of the game, be it a point or three. We’re not worried about what Fanad do. All I’m concerned about is getting my team prepared and up for the game, which is something that will probably take care of itself. We won’t be going for a draw. I also send my team out to attack and score goals, so that will be our approach on Sunday.”
Cockhill, like Fanad, exited the FAI Intermediate Cup on Sunday when they lost on penalties against Kildrum Tigers. Despite their exit, O’Brien feels the game will have served as good preparation for the Fanad game.
“Gerry Gill has recovered from a trapped nerve in his back and has got a 50/50 chance of playing on Sunday,” O’Brien said. “Oisin McColgan has come back and been like a new signing, while Garbhan Friel is getting back to the form he had before he left for Finn Harps.”