St. Eunan’s and Naomh Conaill are once again the last two standing in the race for the RTE Raidio na Gaeltachta Senior Football Championship title.
One of the most modern of Donegal rivalries, this Sunday in Sean MacCumhaill Park, they go head to head for the most coveted prize in Donegal football, the Dr. Maguire Cup. (Throw in 4 pm)
Sunday’s showdown will be the third final meeting (fourth when you count the 2005 replayed decider), between the teams and it is very much honours even with one win each - Naomh Conaill in 2005, and St. Eunan’s in 2009 from those meetings.
That 0-13 to 0-7 victory in 2009 was St. Eunan’s last final appearance while Naomh Conaill, who claimed the Dr. Maguire Cup for the first time in 2005 (after a replay) over Sunday’s opposition, won the championship for a second time in 2010.
They have been two of the top sides in the county in recent times. St. Eunan’s, since the turn of the millennium, have played in eight finals, winning four, 2001, ‘07,’08,’09, while Naomh Conaill have featured in three finals, and have taken home the spoils twice.
While both have a fair few survivors from those meetings, of the two Naomh Conaill boast the the greater number. From that first final seven years ago, nine of the men in blue and white - Johnny Bonner, Thomas Donoghue, Eoin Waide, Anthony Thompson, Brendan McDyer, Leon Thompson, Marty Boyle, Daragh Gallagher and Johnny McLoone - are expected to take the field on Sunday
Martin Regan and Leo McLoone - who was only 16 at the time - were introduced as replacements in 2005, will also feature in the Naomh Conaill line-up.
The turnover at O’Donnell Park has been greater with only Kevin Rafferty, John Haran, Conall Dunne, Rory Kavanagh and Eddie Brennan from 2005 counted as regulars this season so far. David McGinley, who was on the ‘05 team, and Ciaran Greene and Kieran Sharkey, both of whom were sprung from the bench on that occasion, are also members of this season’s squad.
It is advantage Naomh Conaill too from ‘09, with Leo McLoone and Martin Regan (who had nailed down regular berths) joined by goalkeeper Stephen McGrath, Stephen Molloy and Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy to bring 13 the number of survivors from the 2009 decider.
Eddie Brennan, John Haran, Kevin Rafferty, Mark McGowan, Conall Dunne, Rory Kavanagh, Eamon Doherty and Conor Gibbons were all on board the St. Eunan’s 2009 winning team as were current panel members Damien McClafferty, Ciaran Greene and David McGinley.
“It is a great feeling to be looking forward to the county final. It has been a strange year in one regard with Donegal winning the All-Ireland and the focus changing from league to championship and back to league all summer and the uncertainity about when the championship was going to be played, and you are all over the shop,” said Martin Doherty, who is Naomh Conaill joint manager with Stephen McKelvey.
“You are trying to get players motivated for the championship but every team has been dealt the same hand, though with us having so many players involved with the county it was a little more difficult.
“St. Eunan’s are a good side and from the start of the year I felt that they were always going to be there or thereabouts on final day. They have been there and they have set the standard in the county for the best part of the last decade and while they may not have been succesful over the last few years, they havent’t gone away and are still a quality side.
“But myself and Stephen (McKelvey) are very confident that when it comes to face St. Eunan’s on Sunday that we will not be found wanting when it comes to desire and hunger and that every man will step up on their performances to date.
“The good thing is that we are in the final and as we see it, it’s a 50/50 game and we feel if everybody can up their game a level or two from the semi-final, we will not be far away and are in with a right good chance of claiming that third championship.”
Of the two Naomh Conaill have had the easier passage to the final with a fairly comfortable first round win over St. Nauls, over two legs, followed by a 1-10 to 0-5 quarter-final win over Bundoran.
The faced their stiffest test against Four Masters in the semi-final before booking the place in the decider thanks to a late scoring burst to run out the slimmest of winners on an 0-9 to 0-6 scoreline.
St. Eunan’s, on the other hand, received the scare of their lives first day out when Kilcar took the wind from their sails in a 1-8 to 1-5 victory in O’Donnell Park.
“We had a good chat after that game about the performance and we thrashed a few things out and we got the bit between our teeth for the second game in Kilcar. And we really turned things around in the second leg in Kilcar, the following weekend,” said Micheal McGeehin, who shares the management role with Eamon O’Boyle and Brendan Devenny.
“While we knew it was a mammoth task to go to Kilcar to keep our championship alive we were encouraged by the fact that we had gone to Kilcar for our first league game and had won down there with 14 men. We were a different team the second day and luckily we got the result.
“That was a big result and we came through the play-off and overcame Killybegs who probably had an off day against us in the quarter-final handy enough. Dungloe put it up to us in the semi-final but we scored the vital goals to get through and now we are facing Naomh Conaill in the final.
“They have been a consistent team over the last seven or eight years which is testament to the work they are doing at underage level and which is producing a constant stream of good footballers coming through the ranks.
“St. Eunan’s have been doing similar work at underage and have enjoyed some success, but it has been levelled in recent years that we should be doing better for a big club.
“We still have a good few of the team of 2009, but we have also introduced a number of young lads who were in the panel in 2009, but not on the team. But they have come in and done well and are now making the starting team, Lee McMonagle, Conor Gibbons and Sean McVeigh.
“We are hoping that it is that blend of young players and experienced players that will see us cross the line on Sunday evening.
“We have a big panel. We like to think it is a strong panel. I like to think that we have players who are not making the starting 15 can come on if called upon and can make a difference. But Naomh Conaill have a big panel too and are strong.”
Going on past meetings and the way the game has evolved in the last ten years or so the St. Eunan’s coach is expecting Sunday’s final to be a very tactical game.
“We played Naomh Conailll in 2005 and they had a defensive system in place and when we played them again in 2009 they had another system so I do expect it to be a very tactical game.
“They’ve had an opportunity to watch us against Dungloe and we saw them against Four Masters and obviously they will be out to curb our strengths and we will be hoping to do the same to them.
“It is going to be a tactical battle because when you get to a county final it is 50/50; there is nothing between the teams when it comes to fitness so it really comes down to tactics and systems and who has the greater desire and hunger.”
And he feels that while both teams will not be lacking in hunger and desire he feels that St. Eunan’s, after that nightmare start in O’Donnell Park, might be just coming right and the hunger and desire is just bubbling to the surface just at the right time.
Darragh Mulgrew is St. Eunan’s only injury and the young wing-back is set to miss his first senior final while experienced Naomh Conaill defenders Johnny Bonner and Thomas Donoghue have been receiving intensive treatemnt for back and neck injuries repectively in the past ten days. Jason Campbell and Brendan McDyer also have knee injury worries but all four are expected to be fit for Sunday’s showdown.
This is a fascinating and intriguing final between two of the top teams in the county with many key personal duels throughout the field.
Both sides are strong defensively and given that both sides get players back in numbers behind the ball expect space and scores to be at a premium.
The one area where St. Eunan’s would appear to hold the edge is at midfield where John Haran, since his reinstatement after being dropped for the first game against Kilca, and Rory Kavanagh have been putting in big performances.
Conversely, this is the one area that Naomh Conaill have struggled in all season something which was very evident in the semi-final against Four Masters, where Benny Byrne and Francis McMullan ruled the roost for long periods.
And it is something that is bound to be a concern for Martin Doherty and Stephen McKelvey as they put the finishing touches to their preparations and plans for Sunday.
Unless they can conjure up some sort of plan to by-pass this key sector it is where their ambitions of adding that third championship crown may run aground.
On the basis that St. Eunan’s are going to enjoy a greater share of possession around the middle and their forwards are going to enjoy a good deal more possession than the Naomh Conaill attacking unit, the O’Donnell Park men are the favourites to claim title number 13.
On a day, too, of limited open scoring chances, it could be a day for free-takers and the spotlight will be on Conor Gibbons and Mark McGowan St. Eunan’s and Daragh Gallagher, Brendan McDyer and Dermot Molloy of Naomh Conaill.
Verdict: St. Eunan’s