ALTHOUGH it’s said to be a more democratic era in Gaelic football – nationally at least – there’s a pattern beginning to develop as Naomh Conaill and St Eunan’s meet in the final of Ráidio na Gaeltachta SFC for the third time in eight seasons.
Since Naomh Conaill upset the apple cart to defeat the Letterkenny side in 2005, only two other teams – Gaoth Dobhair in 2006 and Glenswilly 12 months ago – have broken the duopoly.
Of the two, it’s been claimed that Naomh Conaill have had the smoother path to this year’s final. St Naul’s and Bundoran were accounted for without having to hit the upper gears, while Four Masters’ red light on the petrol gauge finally lit midway through the second half of the semi-final.
Two years ago, though, when Naomh Conaill’s Thompson brothers, Anthony and Leon, scored late goals to sneak a most dramatic semi-final win in many years against Glenswilly, those in blue and white were swinging from the O’Donnell Park rafters in celebration.
At the same venue last Sunday week, Naomh Conaill’s supporters whisked out like one would when leaving a wake.
Of course they would be honest enough to admit their passage was not as impressive or as exciting as in 2010, when they went onto defeat Killybegs in the final. But their achievement now is the same as then. The team has developed and aren’t the outsiders they were for so long. Impressive underage structures and a litany of successes, particularly at U-21 level, has elevated their status.
Perhaps their early season league form, when they had their four county panellists - Leo McLoone, Anthony Thompson, Dermot Molloy and Marty Boyle – on board might be a more apt reading of their height of achievement this term to date.
Don’t forget they came to Letterkenny and defeated St Eunan’s 1-12 to 1-10 in a pretty competitive All-County League Division One encounter on Easter Bank Holiday Monday. If Naomh Conaill can get back to that level again on Sunday they will be difficult to beat.
St Eunan’s, barring the occasional blip here and there, have been the most consistent side in the county this season. Their case was aided as only really Rory Kavanagh was an absentee for the majority of their league outings – as Kevin Rafferty was injured – and they evolved when required. It’s three years since their three-in-a-row but lots has changed around Sallaghgraine since then.
A week after the All-Ireland final win, the team under the joint-management of Michael McGeehin, Eamon O’Boyle and Brendan Devenney were given as comprehensive a three-point loss at home as one would care to see, with Kilcar the victors.
But rather than wallow in self pity, Kavanagh, John Haran, David McGinley and other senior players took responsibility and by the time they rolled into Towney, St Eunan’s were a different side and a win put them back in the championship.
Their third game against Kilcar was similarly nip and tuck, decided only by a brave Ross Wherity goal 90 seconds into stoppage time, when he could probably hear people roaring in his ears to take the point.
Killybegs let themselves down in the quarter-final but St Eunan’s were clinical and then, in the last four, Dungloe were in the match until just after the break before Lee McMonagle and Mark McGowan settled the encounter with goals in a 3-6 to 0-6 win.
In this condensed and uncompromising shotgun championship in the north-west it has come down to instinct and when the dust is cleared from the surface, arguably the two best teams remain.
When the bookmakers’ odds were penned before a ball was thrown into the air, only St Michael’s, who went so close last year, separated Sunday’s finalists.
Naomh Conaill started the season at 3/1, while St Eunan’s were twice that price. Now, though, it’s evens for those from the Cathedral Town, with the team from Davy Brennan Park only marginally lengthier at 11/10.
Odds will count for little when Robbie O’Donnell hoists the ball on Sunday. It’s what happens on the day that counts. These two know each other well enough now.