Rathnew and Balto get verdict in senior semis
WE HAVE reached the penultimate round of the Senior Football Championship and there are now no back doors left and nowhere to hide. Straight away it must be said that, with the exception of the early demise of the champions St. Patrick's, the Championship has produced few surprises.
Three of the four teams still in the running were on the short list from the start while the fourth, St. Mary's have proved a law unto themselves before now.
BALTINGLASS v BLESSINGTON
The match that everyone has been waiting for - the all-west clash between the two big towns in the area. Baltinglass, after losing so narrowly, and dramatically, in last year's final were one of the fancied teams from the start but then along came Blessington to fairly trounce the holders, and at that time favourites St. Pat's.
That display turned on by the 'Blues' was the best we saw for many a day. Had Jimmy Callaghan's men retained that form, or even a smattering of it, the Championship was as good as over. However, the Blues looked ordinary enough in their next match against Eire Og and a good bit poorer when they took on neighbours Hollywood.
The question now is did Blessington slip back that much in a matter of weeks or were they selling a pup to the big hitters?
Baltinglass had a shaky enough start against Rathnew but survived and they then turned in another of the big displays to wipe Hollywood off the map. However, they got it hard enough to shake off Kiltegan in the quarter-final. So plenty of questions but few enough answers.
So let's look at some of the likely clashes that could have a bearing on this match. Both sides are well served in goal but John Flynn is rated the best in the county and has the edge over Thomas Pender in experience - so one up there for Balto.
Alan Nolan v Dean Siney ? This could be interesting but if Siney hits top form he could give Blessington a slight edge; If Blessington decide to risk their 17-year-old 'wonder kid' Mikey O'Connor we could have a close and perhaps unexpected battle in that corner. Mark Stiens is a young and improving defender and while he has not reached his full potential he could be the ideal foil for the county Minor.
I don't rate the half -forward line that Blessington started with the last day that highly as score-getters. Eoin Keogh, Wayne Callaghan and Seán Byrne are workers rather than finishers so I expect the Baltinglass line of Rory Nolan, Ian Sheerin and Billy Cullen to shade than one, and even if David Faulkner comes in he will not weaken the line.
Midfield - Mikie English and James Sheerin v Gavin Murray and Anthony McLoughlin. Under the high ball Gavin Murray can be mighty but so too can James Sheerin and Mikey English. The mobility of an in-form Anthony McLoughlin could give Blesso a small advantage in the sector.
The Balto half-forward line of John Paul Kelly, Ciarán Foley and Jason Kennedy could also be ball winners rather than scorers. Kelly of course is one of the top scorers in the county but he is sure to be coming up against a high-class marker in either Barry Murphy, Kevin Hanlon or Kevin John Rogers. With Paul McLoughlin almost certain to start at centre half-back I would expect them to cut down the scoring power from that quarter.
That takes us up to the Balto full-forward line of Henry Sinnott, Kevin Murphy and John McGrath. McGrath is one of the top forwards in the county and should be too crafty for whichever of the corner-backs - Declan Fennessy or Stephen Bohan - takes him on so I would not be surprised to see Murphy pulled back to do a marking job. Henry Sinnott is a score-getter and is seldom held for an hour.
The battle on the edge of the square between two high fielders, Mick McLoughlin and Kevin Murphy, could go either way but overall Balto could hold a slight edge there.
'Deno' Heaslip v Jimmy Callaghan brings an interesting contrast in managerial styles but the second in command in Baltinglass just could give the Slaneysiders a small hidden advantage - trump card up the sleeve. Former Thomas Davis and Dublin defender Gary Gilmartin now lives in Blessington and finished his playing career as a Blessington player. He knows all there is to know about the 'Blues'. So if inside information is of any help then Balto have it.
A draw could be a likely result but we may have got our quota of draws for this year so I will go for a narrow win for a more settled Baltinglass team.
RATHNEW v ST. MARY'S
Two teams that have not looked overly impressive along the way but have always delivered.
I have worn out a pocket of pens writing off St. Mary's but they always manage to prove me wrong. The Coolkenno/Shillelagh combination have certainly struck a big blow for the concept of the group team in Wicklow.
This year the Coolkenno side of the combination are trying to bring off the double - Intermediate and Senior - and that may prove a bridge too far. For the moment they are chasing 'Miley' for all they are worth so Rathnew can expect no favours.
Anthony Grey's big worry at the moment is the fitness of his big ball winner and top scorer Don Jackman. Many people will tell you that Jackman is playing better football now than at any time in his long career. His cousin, Ben, is also coming into form and could partner Anthony Murphy at midfield.
Up front the Mary's have plenty more striking power to back up Jackman: Conor Walker, the Rossiter brothers and one or two of the goalscoring Byrnes.
Tradition is on the side of Rathnew - but will that be enough? The table-toppers in the SFC chart are team building at the moment and have a nice blend of youth and experience.
At the moment they could do with a little more power in a few positions. They could do with Stephen Byrne back to beef up their defence. Stewart Murphy is settling in a midfield, but not quick enough for the liking of the supporters. However, one player that does appear to be settling in nicely is the former Newcastle player Adam Merriman.
Mark Doyle can be a handful for any full-back but overall they still depend too much on the evergreen Tommy Gill for scores.
At the risk of losing even more of my friends in the Carlow border area I am going for a Rathnew win.
AUGHRIM v COOLBOY
The second of the quarter-finals in the D'Arcy Sand IFC goes on in Arklow on Sunday.
Aughrim will start hot favourites to claim a place in the semi-finals. They are very strong down the middle with Liam Keenan and Stephan Mann anchoring the defence, Robert Lambert to give them a pull
at midfield and Brian Canavan and Stephen Fanning to lead the attack.
Coolboy surprised many by qualifying for this stage after losing so many players - but qualify they did. Newcomer Stephen Carter has proved a real find, while veterans like Joe Dempsey and Seán Kenny continue to battle on as well as what is left of the O'Keeffes and the Gregans. They could make it a tight enough match but a surprise is not on the cards.
Verdict - Aughrim
BALTINGLASS v KNOCKANANNA
The replay of the JAFC match between Baltinglass and Knockananna goes on as the curtain-raiser at Arklow. The early start is to facilitate the Baltinglass supporters who will want to get back to Aughrim to cheer on the Seniors.
Draws and replays are hard to predict. All I can say that after the drawn game is that both sets of supporters made claims that their side had left it behind them. Which side will be proved right?
ENNISKERRY v NEWTOWN
The Championship action starts on Thursday evening with the first of the semi-finals in the Philip Doyle Junior B Championship between Enniskerry and Newtown at Roundwood.
Enniskerry are only just back in this grade and look to have a fairly useful side. They had good wins over two west sides, Baltinglass and Hollywood.
Newtown are always hard to beat in the championship and if they can get out their strongest team then could do it. They played well against Lacken in Lacken, but only in patches.
I go for Enniskerry.
AVONDALE v CARNEW
This second semi final at Annacurra on Friday looks wide open; Carnew are deeply involved in hurling and that could distract from this challenge.
The 'Dales on the other hand have most of their hurling commitments behind them and can now concentrate on putting some silverware on the side board.
A Carnew win.
AGB v EIRE OG
The Arklow side need the Junior C Cup most and that could be a factor in Ashford on Sunday. However, Eire Og are a club on the up and up, this team are a hungry lot and gobbled up Kiltegan in the semi-final.
And on that form I am going for a Greystones win.
Div.4 FL final at Avondale: Hollywood v Rathnew, Sunday, 11.30 a.m.
MFC semi-final: St. Patrick's v St. Nicholas, Arklow, 11.30 a.m.