Naomh Conaill and St. Eunan’s once again lock horns in a county final, this time in the U-21A decider as they bring down the curtain on another Donegal football season.
The clubs have already met in the senior championship final with St. Eunan’s claiming the laurels by a single point, 1-7 to 0-9, in Sean MacCumhaill Park.
Mark McGowan clinched the win with a late pointed 45 metre free after a Lee McMonagle’s goal ten minutes from the end of normal time ignited the St. Eunan’s challenge. St. Eunan’s were trailing 0-8 to 0-6 when McMonagle struck for what was a super goal.
McMonagle is one of four players who played in that senior final for St. Eunan’s. Conor Parke, Peter Devine and Conor Gibbons are the others while Darragh Mulgrew missed the senior final through injury and Caolan Ward, another influential member of Mickey Gibbons’s U-21s, was also among the reserves on senior final day.
Naomh Conaill, who are managed by Connie Doherty, are not without their share of senior players too. Dermot’ Brick’ Molloy - a member of the Donegal All-Ireland winning squad - Cathal Ellis, Jason Campbell and John O’Malley, all featured for Naomh Conaill in the Dr. Maguire decider. Campbell, Ellis and Molloy in the starting 15 and O’Malley sprung from the bench in the second half.
Naomh Conaill, beaten finalists last year - they lost to a Patrick McBrearty, Mark and Ryan McHugh inspired Kilcar - are appearing in their seventh U-21 final in-a-row and chasing a fifth U-21 championship.
“It is a fantastic record all right and something we are very proud of but to be honest it should be ten. We lost a few more semi-finals that we should have won,” said Connie Doherty.
“We have put in a big effort at U-21 over the last decade and I suppose to win four out of six is a good enough return and hopefully we can make it five out of seven on Sunday.
“But we know we are up against it. St. Eunan’s are a strong side and have a lot of very good footballers and a number of footballers with senior championship experience and senior medals in their back pockets.
“But we are not without hope. We feel we have a good strong team too and we also have a fair bit of experience having played in so many finals in the last few years.”
Doherty has nine of last year’s team - Seamus and Jason Campbell, Cathal Ellis, Hugh Gallagher, Patrick Moss, John O’Malley, Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy, Christopher Molloy and Jamie McHugh - available for Sunday’s showdown.
And that number may reach ten if Ciaran Brennan - who is sitting law exams this week in UCD - proves his fitness having not played in this season’s campaign so far after breaking his ankle during the summer.
The manager has not given up on having the versatile Brennan, but he is definitely with the Gallagher brothers Jamie and Mark.
Jamie, who missed last year’s final with a cruciate knee injury’ is also going to have to sit out this year’s final after injuring his cruciate again earlier in the season, while county minor, Mark, suffered a chipped bone in his ankle ahead of the quarter final meeting with Letterkenny Gaels.
Both sides have played five games on their way to the final. Naomh Conaill overcame Bundoran, Ardara (after a replay) and Cloughaneely. St. Eunan’s, who are playing a fourth game in five weeks, saw off the challenge of Gaoth Dobhair, Kilcar (in a replay) and St. Michaels.
“We’ve had a hectic few weeks which can be a good thing in that it has allowed us get a team together and get something of a run going. The only problem, I suppose, is that the boys on the senior team have a lot of football played and that hectic schedule may be getting to them,” said St. Eunan’s manager Mickey Gibbons, who was also in charge when the club won the last of their five U-21 championships in 2003.
Gibbons also admitted that they (management and players) learned a lot about themselves in their 3-10 to 2-8 quarter-final replay win over Kilcar on Saturday week last.
“Kilcar were a good side. They came to O’Donnell Park and drew. But we upped our game for the replay and we played very well and really came together as a team.
“We did not play as well against St. Michael’s last Sunday. But we were missing a number of key players from the previous week and it upset the rhythm we had against Kilcar.
“Conal McGinley, Kevin Meehan and Garvan Grant, who replaced Caolan Ward, Conor Harley and Packie Kennedy, all did well. The three boys and Caolan Flood, who was also absent, are all big players in our squad.”
Caolan Ward, Caolan Flood and Conor Harley missed the semi-final through illness and the manager is keeping his fingers crossed that they will be available for Sunday’s showdown.
The manager is also working this week on getting Packie Kennedy, who is at College in Cardiff, back for the game. Kennedy, who scored one goal and set up another in a very impressive display at full-forward against Kilcar, was not due to return home until Sunday evening.
“Naomh Conaill have a fabulous record at U-21, and have built up a great pedigree a in the last decade and have won four of the last six U-21 championships.
“This is our first final in nine years and it is a big game for us. But we are looking forward to it and I feel we are ready for the challenge of Naomh Conaill. Rory Kavanagh and Conall Dunne were on the ‘93 team and the lads feel it is a great opportunity for them to follow in the footsteps of players that they look up to and admire and will replace as the club’s main players in the next few years.”
St. Eunan’s have the momentum, the match sharpness and the greater strength in depth and as a consequence go into the game as favourites.
But they will need to be at full-strength against a Naomh Conaill outfit bred on U-21 success and who were highly in impressive in their 1-11 to 0-4 hammering of a decent Cloughaneely in their semi-final three weeks ago.
Naomh Conaill squad: Ronan O Donnell, Seamus Campbell, Jason Campbell, Hughie Gallagher, Seamus Ellis, Cathal Ellis, Mark Molloy, Ciaran Thompson, Patrick Moss, Eunan Doherty, Dermott Molloy, James Doherty, Jamie Mc Hugh, John O Malley, Christopher Molloy, Phil Mc Geehan, Ciaran Brennan, Mark Gallagher, Ciaran Quinn, John Molloy, Michael Mc Monagle, Owen Boyle, Owen Mc Glynn, Anthony Molloy,
St Eunan’s squad: Jordan McBride, Finian O’Doherty, Colm Flood, Conor Parke, Darragh Mulgrew, Mark Forde, Ciaran Greaney, Peter Devine (capt), Oisin Carr, Barry McGeehan, Conor O’Donnell, Conal McGinley, Caolan Ward, Caolan Flood, Conor Gibbons, Conor Harley, Michael Coleman, Lee Mc Monagle, Garvan Grant, Packie Kennedy, Kevin Meehan, Cormac Coughlin, John Foley, Marcus Harley, Conor McEniff.
Verdict: St. Eunan’s