Mary Kelly scoring the winning goal in the 2016 Ulster final replay. (Pic: Mary K Burke www.marykburke.com)
ULSTER SENIOR CAMOGIE FINAL 2019
Slaughtneil v Loughgiel
Sunday (1.00) – Páirc Esler
The more things change, the more they stay the same. For all of Slaughtneil’s dominance at All-Ireland level, it is their great rivals Loughgiel who stand in the way of a fourth successive Ulster triumph on Sunday.
It will be a sixth meeting of the teams, with the Derry champions unbeaten since losing to the Shamrocks in the 2015 final.
The following year Slaughtneil dug themselves back from the jaws of defeat to salvage a draw before securing a first Ulster title after a thrilling replay, a game manager Damien McEldowney feels was the team’s defining moment.
“With everything that happened the week before,” he points out, referring to the passing of Thomas Ó Caiside.
“We drew that first game and we probable had no right to draw it. The speech Eilís (Ní Chaiside) gave at half-time would have had hairs standing on the back of your neck. She just wasn’t getting beat that day and none of the girls wanted to.
“The strength we got from that day, we just carried it through to the replay. Getting that first victory over Loughgiel…we thought (before that) ‘we can’t beat these girls’ and the confidence just grew… and the rest is history.”
In the last two seasons, the Emmet’s were also victorious and go into Sunday’s game with their All-Ireland title also on the line.
Since their victory at Croke Park earlier this year, Slaughtneil lost sisters Bróna and Eilís Ní Chaiside from their defence, after the pair’s decision to go travelling.
On the flip side, he has been able to recall defender Clare McGrath, after coming back from having a baby last year.
“We’ve had to rebuild every year. The first year we won the All-Ireland, we lost Mary Kelly. The second year we lost Dervlagh (McGuigan), Denise (McGuigan) and Clare,” McEldowney states.
“Every year is a rebuilding job. We know we have the squad to do it because the girls have been the there and pushing and when their chance comes, they take it.
“The likes of Céat (McEldowney), Eilis McGrath, Cliona (Mulholland) – these girls have been with us from the very beginning and they’ve had to be patient and thankfully their patience has worked out.”
They have bolstered their squad in recent seasons with Tina Bradley and Shannon Graham.
Earlier this summer, Slaughtneil lost out to neighbours Swatragh in the league decider. Dominic McKinley re-joined the management team ahead of the championship and a rejuvenated side hammered Coleraine in the first round, to set up a semi-final date with the Davitt’s.
A first-half goal from Tina Bradley (1-4) and five points from Louise Dougan turned the tables on the league champions.
The final was a battle of wills against a Ballinascreen team setup to limit Slaughtneil’s attacking unit. In a low-scoring final, 0-11 to 0-3, it was the link play of Shannon Graham, Tina and Siobhan Bradley that saw them come through to gain a fifth successive title and a sixth in the club’s history.
While they never looked like scoring a goal, their defence and goalkeeper Jolene Bradley shut the door on any chance of a ‘Screen victory.
Since then, the Emmet’s have played Jordanstown University side to help sharpen the focus for this weekend’s showdown.
Their opponents Loughgiel, Antrim champions on 22 occasions, come into the Ulster race on the back of a sixth successive Antrim crown.
“For me, the toughest match every year has been Loughgiel. We have played some of the best teams in Ireland and Loughgiel have been one of the toughest,” McEldowney feels.
“I expect no different this year. I know they will have been to watch us, I know they will have spoken to teams and tried to work on things. They will have their homework done and if we are not up to scratch or we don’t play to our potential, it’ll be a lot tighter game than we’d hope.”
In the group stages the Shamrocks were 5-25 to 0-5 winners over Portglenone and handed a 9-32 to 0-7 hammering to Cushendall before winning their semi-final (4-7 to 2-8), thanks to 2-1 from Caitrin Dobbin.
Lucia McNaughton and Christine Laverty also found the net and will feature prominently in Slaughtneil’s defensive plans for Sunday’s final.
Ace forward Racquel McCarry-Murphy hasn’t played so far this season. In their county final win over Ballycastle (2-10 to 1-9), it was Dobbin who again annexed 2-1 and will need watching this weekend. The Slaughtneil management were in attendance and saw the threat at first hand. Specialist marker Clare McGrath could be tasked with picking up Dobbin, but the Emmet’s boss stressed the need to concentrate on themselves.
“It’s only one game and you can’t judge a team on one game,” McEldowney points out. “Everyone in Ireland knows our team and how we play.
“We don’t change anything, we are not trying to hide anything. We put out the team we feel is going to win and it up to other teams to come and play us however they want to play us.”
A feature of Slaughtneil’s play, has been Louise Dougan’s sweeper role. As well as her positional sense, it’s her long clearances from defence that are often the launch-pad for Slaughtneil attacks.
Slaughtneil won’t have to plan for Laura Connolly or Aisling McFadden, who are both out of the country.
Back in the Loughgiel fold is Shauna Devlin, who missed last season. Elsewhere, minor players Ciara Laverty and Anna Connolly have forced their way into PJ O’Mullan’s forward unit.
Loughgiel’s Megan Coyle is an experienced goalkeeper but has conceded three goals in the last two games, including one from a free late in their semi-final win over Dunloy.
By contrast, Jolene Bradley and the Emmet’s defence have yet to concede a goal in the championship this season. Eilis McGrath and Bridín McAllister have slotted in seamlessly.
Sunday’s game will come down to the middle third. Much of Slaughtneil’s play comes through Tina Bradley and Shannon Graham in the midfield sector, but the concern this week will be how they failed to cut Ballinascreen open.
They will need to impose themselves on Loughgiel’s central spine of Amy Boyle, Lucia McNaughton and Anna Connolly.
While Dougan and Tina Bradley are ever-accurate from frees, the Slaughtneil defence will need to be disciplined in the tackle with Emma McMullan racking up 1-23 in the last four Antrim championship games, most of which came from frees.
The Emmet’s haven’t been firing on all cylinders but they remain unbeaten and ‘Cobb’ hails the work put in by his backroom team on the training field.
Also, their personal training programmes were recalibrated by strength and conditioning coach Ollie Cummings.
“We knew what level we had to be at any stage and Mickey (Glover) had that all mapped out. We’re coming into this Ulster Final at the level we feel we need to be at,” McEldowney outlines.
If they can keep a clean sheet on Sunday, they will be half-way to victory. Much will depend on Tina Bradley’s influence but if she can continue her form, the champions might just edge this one.
DerryNow Verdict: Slaughtneil
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