“Probably should have been the final, those were the best two teams left in the Championship.”
That comment came minutes after Greenlough had held on for a nervous one point semi-final victory over Steelstown in Celtic Park. For the record, it was from an impartial observer but at the time, it was a statement with some merit.
Greenlough’s only league challengers had been Claudy who were eventually seen off and whom they had also knocked out of the Championship in a match that will live long in the memories of those lucky enough to witness it.
The league form of Castledawson and especially Craigbane did little to suggest they would trouble St. Oliver Plunkett’s if they reached the decider but the reigning champions were certainly the more likely contenders.
And as news filtered through that Lee Moore and Aidy McLaughlin would be missing that evening, the odds on the ‘Lilywhites’ appearing in the final lengthened that big more.
Except Craigbane are a Championship team.
Fast forward 12 minutes into the second semi-final and every ‘expert’ in the crowd or press box who had written Kevin Moore’s team off were hastily rethinking that opinion after a blistering opening spell that saw them 1-06 to no score ahead and on their way to this weekend’s Owenbeg showpiece.
Saturday’s intriguing final will be four weeks to the day since those last four clashes which went a fair way to creating doubt in a Championship most had written off as Greenlough’s following that win over Claudy.
Craigbane’s renaissance is a major reason for that but so too is the league champions’ tendency to play only in spells during a championship run which hasn’t hit the heights of their league form
They have done enough to win with something in reserve and much of that has been down to Enda Lynn. The long held logic this season in Division Two has been to stop Greenlough you stop Lynn, but no team has found the formula to do this adequately.
The Derry star was unplayable for a 20 minute first half spell against Steelstown and it won his side the game. Obviously wary of the threat of man markers, Lynn will likely be afford a free role again this weekend but it was ironic the Steelstown enjoyed their best spell in the semi-final only after they stopped chasing the Greenlough player around the pitch and concentrated on their own game.
To counter the Lynn threat, Fergal Crossan could be key. Few players read the game better than the 37-year old and if Lynn does drop deep to build play as he did against Steelstown, Crossan is the Craigbane key to limiting his influence. Lynn only scored two points from play in the semi-final but it was his overall influence the was the most impressive aspect.
The return of captain John Og McPeake is another boost and that four week break could be critical to Greenlough as they will have shaken off any lethargy gained from the long season.
The break could be viewed be a blessing or curse for Craigbane. The Lilywhites were building up a nice head of steam following the semi-final, momentum which will now be lost but, on the flip side, the break means both Aidy McLaughlin and Lee Moore have a chance of being fit.
Midfielder McLaughlin looks certain to start but doubts remain over Moore who has been as important to his team as Lynn is to Greenlough down the years. The quad injury which is disrupted his season to date is unlikely to have cleared completely but Moore should play some part on Saturday whether its from the bench or not remains to be seen.
What is certain though is that if he plays, even if not fully fit, he will be a major threat to the Clady side. What the semi-final did show though was that Craigbane have scores in them even without their talismanic forward. Castledawson’s defending was generous to say the least but the power of players like Bliain Gormley, Gavin Conwell and McLaughlin around the middle of the field will be crucial to Craigbane getting a foothold in the game. It was that platform that won the game against Castledawson and they need another big performance from their midfield this weekend.
Both side’s have match winners and Greenlough’s indifferent form of late has created doubt but they still go in as favourites. Craigbane have ample experience to deal with that though and if they can curtail Lynn they have the players to spring a surprise victory.