County final countdown – Who will prevail?

Hodson Bay Hotel Roscommon SFC Final:
Strokestown v Boyle at Dr Hyde Park, Roscommon on Sunday at 3pm
(Referee: Ollie Kelly)

A truly novel county final takes place this Sunday – between two teams who haven’t been at or near the top table for many years. In the case of Boyle, that absence from the main stage has lasted for almost a century.

It’s a pairing that is generating massive interest not only in both towns, but across the county too. The Fahey Cup will be going where it hasn’t resided for at least two decades (should Strokestown triumph), 95 years in the event of a Boyle win. Not one of the players lining out on Sunday has ever played in a county senior final.

So, how did we get here? Strokestown played well in the group stages, but still failed to win a match. They produced a good second-half performance against St Brigid’s, but just came up short. Even the Strokestown camp will say they were lucky to get a draw against Tulsk.

Their good form returned against Padraig Pearses in the final group game. In what was possibly the game of the championship, Strokestown missed their one great goal chance, while Pearses took theirs. Other results meant Strokestown qualified for the play-offs. They were still alive.

  Their luck was about to turn too. Handed a bye to the quarter-finals, Strokestown met a then unbeaten Oran. The ‘Town played some brilliant, direct football and were competing well until one of their talismen, Cathal Compton, was sent off early in the second half. Instead of throwing in the towel, they dug in, scoring one of the goals of the championship from Ciaran Regan. When Diarmuid McGann added a second goal close to the final whistle, Strokestown were through to the last four.

Roscommon Gaels had beaten Padraig Pearses and were now the ‘talking horse’ of the championship, but Strokestown had momentum and renewed belief too. Underdogs for the semi-final, they never allowed the Gaels to get going. Again they struck for two vital goals, one from Colm Neary (who has had a fantastic championship), the other from Paddy Brogan, an outrageous lob. They had weathered the Gaels’ storm and thoroughly deserved their win.

Under the astute management of John Rogers and Mark Dowd, the ’Black and Amber’ have several outstanding performers. Sean Mullooly, Davy Neary, Keith Murphy, David Butler, Cathal Compton, Kevin Finn, Paddy Brogan, Colin Compton and Diarmuid McGann have all seen inter-county action. This is an experienced and very capable team finally fulfilling its potential.

Boyle have been at the business of the championship for the past five or six years, but always seemed to ultimately meet a team who were too good for them. Now they come into this final unbeaten in the championship, and as league champions too.

They comfortably dealt with Western Gaels, Clann na nGael and St Faithleach’s, putting up big totals to qualify for the quarter-finals. Their full-forward line of Daire Cregg, Donie Smith and Cian McKeon were ‘shooting the lights out’ as Cian Smith’s men powered into the play-off stages. The big question was…could they deliver in the knockout matches –  and reach a final?

Boyle were probably least impressive in their quarter-final against Glavey’s, while still good for a five-point win. In the semi-final they came up against St Brigid’s, many people’s title favourites. After a very slow start, and led by the outstanding Donie Smith, Boyle came back into the match. In the second half they were fortunate when a penalty award against them was overruled, and duly kicked on to win by three points.

In addition to that lethal full-forward line, Boyle have more outstanding players. Seanie Purcell is the heart and soul of the team, a leader from centre half-back. Roch Hanmore, Cathal Feely, Tadhg McKenna, Evan McGrath and county star Enda Smith also have huge roles to play.

A fascinating duel awaits, the outcome of which is very hard to call. Boyle have a lethal attack but the Strokestown defence restricted Roscommon Gaels to very few chances in the semi-final. If they do that again on Sunday there will only be one outcome.

I have been really impressed by Strokestown’s direct brand of football. Diarmuid McGann and Shane McGinley, both of whom are playing really well, will hope to take advantage of any slackness in the Boyle defence.

As ever, possession at midfield will be crucial. The clash of Cathal Compton and David Butler with Enda Smith (or Cathal Feely) and Roch Hanmore will be key. Against Roscommon Gaels the Strokestown pair dominated and they will hope to do the same on Sunday. If they do, Boyle will be in trouble.

There are further fascinating duels in prospect, such as Sean Mullooly v Donie Smith, David Neary v Daire Cregg, Conor Flanagan v Colin Compton and Seanie Purcell v Kevin Finn.

No one will begrudge whoever wins this unique final. On the basis that forwards win games I am going to come down ever so slightly on the side of Boyle because of the attacking talent they possess.

One of these teams will be remembered in their community as heroes for all time, because the statement ‘what’s seldom is wonderful’ is so true and certainly applies in this case. I just hope it’s a great game and a great occasion. I think it will be.

Prediction: Boyle