Slaughtneil boss Damien Barton knows what it means to taste defeat in a Senior County final. In fact, he knows what that feels like for Ballinderry.
Michael Wilson reports
Celtic Park can be a lonely place on County Final day amid the throngs of supporters whose celebrations greet the full-time whistle. It is a day when only the winners matter. Barton knows that high from his playing career with Newbridge but the early years of his management career introduced him to the other side of the coin as his Ballinderry team twice fell to Bellaghy in 1999 and 2000.
That feeling is not something you forget easily and amid the euphoria that greeted the accomplished semi-final replay victory over Kilrea, Barton was not about to forget it. Nothing has been won. The target remains in front of his Slaughtneil players and it is a very familiar one.
The Emmets have only taken the John McLaughlin Cup home once, back in 2004, and their last appearance in a decider ended in a 0-10 to 0-08 defeat to a Raymond Wilkinson inspired Ballinderry in 2008.
In contrast the Shamrocks will be appearing in their third consecutive final. They were caught cold by Eoghan Rua in 2010 but appeared to have learned their lesson last time out when another first time finalist, Kilrea, were put to the sword with relative ease to bring their county title tally to 11.
Bellaghy may hold the record for most titles but with their last victory coming in 2005, Martin McKinless’ men are very much the aristocrats of the modern era and Barton knows it.
“We are in the final but Ballinderry are the best team in the county, and they have been the best but therein lies the challenge,” explained the 1993 All Ireland winner.
“You can run away from it or you can come relaxed and apply yourself. We will be considered the underdogs but any game is fifty-fifty at the same time.”
Ballinderry’s recent history has dictated that underdog tag for the Emmet’s - and it is one which will suit Barton down to the ground - but no-one who has been watching the Senior League or Championship this season will be remotely surprised Slaughtneil are lining out on Sunday. Their second half demolition of Kilrea points to a team on the rise, a team with a system that works well and a team with a point to prove, to Ballinderry more than anyone.
Central to that system are full-back and half-back lines that swarmed all over Kilrea and forced them into hurried shots from distance which more than often missed their target. This is where Sunday’s final is likely to be won and Barton will be hoping his defenders can do as well against a Shamrocks front line which boasts no shortage of inter-county and club Championship experience. That man Wilkinson will again be a threat to Slaughtneil hopes but place too much emphasis on him and you forget Collie Devlin or Conleith Gilligan while even in the twilight of his career, Enda Muldoon can change a game in a moment as he more than adequately illustrated in the Ballinderry’s semi-final victory over Banagher.
“They (the Ballinderry forwards) are all very fleet-footed and mobile and all very confident,” agreed Barton, “It would be unfair to single any of them out. It should be a very interesting contest but the middle third and the supply route is more important.
“I think most both teams will get their share of ball in the middle third, it looks fairly even but Championship football is all about fine margins.”
That midfield battle will see Patsy Bradley come up against Muldoon and James Conway, the victor in that sector providing his team with a foundation that may decide the game.
“Patsy has been playing well, he’s been leading people and inspiring them with his performances. He is talking a lot more which is a positive thing but he’s not going to win this game on his won.”
Against Kilrea, Slaughtneil defended inside the 45m and hit at speed on the break, isolating the Kilrea backs against the likes of Jim Kelly and Chris Bradley. Those tactics are likely to be replicated on Sunday but Ballinderry have an experienced backline of their though how quickly they get support back could be pivotal.
Many have predicted a Slaughtneil team on the rise meeting a Ballinderry team whose best days are behind them but Barton is not about to fall into the trap of underestimating the Shamrocks. Discipline is key because both sides have players who can punish the opposition from dead balls as with two tight defences scores are going to be at a premium.
All over the pitch there are fascinating individual duels, Ballinderry holding the edge in terms of experience but Slaughtneil probably the more impressive in their run to the final. It is going to be close.