AIB Connacht Club SFC Final: Knockmore (Mayo) v Pádraig Pearses (Roscommon) at James Stephens’ Park, Ballina on Sunday at 1.30 pm
In this, the very strangest of club championship campaigns, Mayo champions Knockmore will have home advantage as they welcome Pádraig Pearses to Ballina on Sunday for this eagerly awaited Connacht club senior final.
When Pearses won their first ever Roscommon senior title in 2019 most observers would have been of the opinion that to win the Fahey Cup would have been sufficient for the club that season given their long famine without a senior title, and so it proved.
However, looking back on 2019, if Pat Flanagan’s men had played the football they were capable of playing earlier against Corofin in that provincial club final in Tuam, then they could well have made the breakthrough in Connacht as well.
But that ship sailed a long time ago and Pearses are back in the decider this year, and this time around there is no disguising the fact that they badly want to win a Connacht title.
On the basis of their form this year, there is no doubt that if they can play to their strengths they can emerge victorious.
Usually a trip to Mayo to play a Connacht championship final is a daunting task, but while Knockmore will provide a formidable challenge, there is no reason why Pearses cannot get the job done. On form, they certainly have no reason to fear the Mayo men.
The circumstances of their semi-final win against Mountbellew-Moylough have been well documented, but in the cold light of day the facts are that Pearses survived a dogfight to emerge, and that battle will surely stand to them on Sunday.
There aren’t expected to be too many changes on the Pearses team for Sunday. Paul Whelan is improving all the time between the posts and is a vital last line of defence. Mark Richardson, Anthony Butler and Gavin Downey have been the full-back line all year and they performed well against a very good Mountbellew-Moylough attack in the semi-final.
The Pearses half-back line will be one of the vital areas on Sunday. Davy Murray has had a tremendous championship so far and his leadership has been magnificent in every game. He will be a key man for Pearses on Sunday alongside Ronan Daly and the talented young Conor Lohan.
There will be a fascinating duel at midfield where Pearses duo, Niall and Conor Daly, will clash with the vastly experienced Kevin McLaughlin and Shane McHale.
In attack, Pearses will be hoping that the experience of Shane and Niall Carty, and the ability of Lorcan Daly, Conor Payne, and Paul Carey will be key. But the main man in attack will be Hubert Darcy, who is now the primary target man and he will have another crucial part to play on Sunday in terms of distribution and scoring too.
The Pearses panel has been vital to their cause this year and with players like Tom Butler, Emmet Kelly, Jack Tumulty and Sean Ryan ready to come on, it looks a very strong group overall.
Knockmore have been workmanlike as they defended their Mayo title but that in itself is never an easy thing to do. Managed by club legend Ray Dempsey, they put a stop to the sensational run of Belmullet in the county final as they closed out their opponents with guile, experience and championship know-how.
They have seasoned performers throughout their side, not least their goalkeeper Colm Reape. Kieran King and David McHale (the captain) are excellent defenders who kept the highly-rated Belmullet attackers at bay in the county final and were impressive again in the Connacht semi-final against Tourlestrane.
At midfield, Kevin McLaughlin continues to lead by example and the Mayo star is the heartbeat of this Knockmore team. Meanwhile, up front Peter Naughton is a top class free-taker, while James Ruddy and Connell Dempsey have been playing well for the Mayo men.
Knockmore have not been spectacular in any of their major games in the latter stages of this championship. However, the bottom line is that they can always find a way to win and that’s a fantastic attribute to have in any team.
At home in Ballina, the Mayo champions will be confident that they can add to their three provincial titles. However, Pádraig Pearses have improved with every outing so far this year. They have watched over the years as their neighbours and rivals Clann na nGael and St. Brigid’s have tasted provincial glory on several occasions and they now feel that their time has come.
If Pat Flanagan’s men ‘play football’ and can get their talented attackers on the ball, they have the ability and the championship experience to win this provincial title. It will not be easy in Ballina, but Pearses have the players to get over the line and start the new year with a bang for Roscommon football.
Prediction: Pádraig Pearses