Club defining Championship final for Glen and Magherafelt
O'Neill's Derry Senior Football Championship Final: Glen v Magherafelt (Sunday, Celtic Park, 4pm)
The final no-one predicted has become the final everyone wants to see.
A first senior final in 36 years for Magherafelt. A first senior final for Glen.
History beckons for both clubs on Sunday. Experience, so often the key word on county final day, has been removed from the equation and no one quite knows what to expect.
A full five years must be added to those 36 to retrace a path back to 1978, the last time the Rossas lifted the county title in shocking conditions against Banagher in Swatragh.
That day was far from a classic for the ages. The sides were level at 0-1 a-piece at half-time. So much for blanket defences! Magherafelt eventually took the title by a single point at 1-04 to 1-03 but no matter the margin, the Rossas were bringing the cup back to Magherafelt.
No one lining out in red on Sunday was even born when Gerry O’Loughlin raised the trophy above his head that day but it’s fair to say the legacy of that team remains the benchmark by which all Magherafelt teams are measured.
Ironically, the club’s 2019 edition arrive on the biggest stage largely unheralded. When the odds were being handed out pre-championship, very few even mentioned Magherafelt let alone tipped them for glory.
A first round draw against defending champions, Coleraine, didn’t help in that regard and even the Emmett McGuckin inspired shock victory over Eoghan Rua changed few minds.
The county focused instead on an unfolding Banagher fairy-tale which Magherafelt would close the book on in a dramatic semi-final that finally made people sit up and take notice of Adrian Cush’s men.
Yet even then, after securing their berth in the decider, Magherafelt’s time in the spotlight lasted barely 24 hours thanks to a club nine miles down the road.
Glen’s defeat of Slaughtneil is the stand-out result of the championship and in a championship as good as this 2019 version has been, that is quite a statement.
The scenes at full-time in Owenbeg, in front of over 6,000 fans, made it easy to forget no trophy had been handed out though Glen’s victory felt as much psychological as physical. Slaughtneil was a barrier this Watty Graham’s side had to breach and while they did so in magnificent fashion, the win was only a means to an end as Jude Donnelly was reminding his players even before they had left the Owenbeg pitch.
They must also now deal with that most hated of football clichés, the favourites tag.
Strangely for such an intriguing final, it’s difficult to imagine either management camp straying far from the what has brought them to Celtic Park.
Glen victory over Slaughtneil was based around a hugely impressive running game that cut the 2017 Ulster champions to shreds at times. In an era where people talk of transition speed, the likes of Jack Doherty, Emmett Bradley and young Conleth McGuckin were too hot for Slaughtneil to handle.
Glen’s constant rotation of an interchangeable front six is designed to unsettle defenders and open gaps for those deep runners and it worked perfectly against the Emmet’s but Magherafelt will have taken note. Indeed, it would not be a surprise to see the Rossas drop extra men in to curtail the possibility of being prised opened as often.
Magherafelt’s counter attacking ability has also been their big strength but they showed in the early stages against Banagher that they can carry the fight when they have to. It worked superbly in that quarter-final but going gung-ho would play into Glen hands so expect a more conservative approach.
Last season, Magherafelt were castigated for an overly defensive approach but the balance has been much better this season and they showed in the second half of the semi-final that they can still grind out a result when the forwards aren’t firing.
Danny Heavron is key to the Rossas game-plan and alongside Conor Kearns, that duo is the link between attack and defence and if Shane Heavron gets decent ball, he will hurt any team.
Glen had considerable trouble with their kick-out in the opening half against a high pressing Slaughtneil 15 and Magherafelt might test those waters once more in the final. The short kick, if working correctly, can have a huge impact on the Glen game-plan because it brings the opposition up the field. If they press, it opens defensive spaces which is where the Watty Graham’s hard running game is most effective. Alternatively, handing the likes of Ciaran McFaul, Jack Doherty and Bradley free possession off the kick-out is a dangerous game.
Indeed, Magherafelt’s decision on how to approach those Glen restarts could be the game’s determining factor.
The stage is set for Derry’s new kings to be crowned. For the Rossas, victory could define a new generation but for Glen, victory could define the club.