Friday 24 November 2017

One last hurrah?

IT might be stretching it to apply the 'Group of Death' tag, but section D looks like a humdinger as three strong SFC contenders go head to head.

Perennial challengers - and last year's beaten finalists - Cooley Kickhams are joined by an O'Connell's side who reached the semis 12 months ago and Mattock Rangers who won four titles between 2002 and 2010.

Former Louth supremo Paddy Clarke, who first managed Mattock some 40 years ago, has returned to Collon for a third spell as he bids to squeeze one more triumph out of a team that is heading into transition as some of their long-time servants reach their twilight years.

Clarke, who was in charge in 2005 when Gerry Hanratty lifted the Joe Ward Cup, wouldn't be going back if he didn't think he could engineer another success, but his connections with the red and blacks run much deeper than that.

He explained: 'We were talking recently when we saw that Pairc Ui Chaoimh was going to be revamped and reminiscing that the first match when it was refurbished the last time in 76, Michael Reid, the late Damien Reid and Pat Bannon and myself headed down to see Cork and Kerry there. They were fellas I went everywhere with and I'm still friends with them.

'I've known them all since 74 - the like of Larry Geraghty and all those fellas as well - and I do have an affinity with Mattock.

'There's something in Gaelic football about border towns as well. They tend to have a little bit more go in them because they're looked upon as half-baked county men. It's the same with Kingscourt. A lot of Kingscourt people would go to Meath matches when they're doing well.

'Collon's on the Louth/Meath border and they're looked on as half-baked Louth men. A lot of them married girls from Meath as well, so they do have an afffinity to Meath.

'But to prove that they're full-blooded Louth men they tend to approach matches in a certain way and I've found that that phenomenon exists around a lot of parishes throughout the country.'

Clarke hesitates to use the word 'transition' when assessing the health of the 2014 Mattock Rangers squad, pointing out that the panel boasts an enviable array of young talent as well as the experienced heads who know all about winning championships.

'It's the last sting of a dying wasp for the David Brennans and Christy Grimes, but I'm not so sure about Niall Callan - he's a fitness fanatic and would probably go on a bit longer. They're all around the 37 mark,' he said.

'But then we have about six of the Ardee Community School team who did so well this year, so the whole thing is marrying that all up, but there's some amount of talent there.

'Lorcan Kavanagh has come back to us, he's a first cousin of Jamie Heaslip and he's adapted very, very well to Gaelic football. He's a massive, powerful man and very fast and has forearms which are unreal - it's a shocking job to get him into a Gaelic jersey!

'John McKeown is a youth soccer international who has come back as well, the Caraher twins are incredible and we also have Cathal Clarke who was on the Louth minor team this year.

'Unfortunately we lost Aaron O'Brien who did his cruciate, but we've a very good mix and obviously Mark Brennan has come back this year as well.'

Whatever about challenging for Joe Ward in the autumn, the first challenge for Mattock Rangers will be to get out of their group, and that will be a big ask in itself, given that Cooley reached the decider last year, O'Connell's beat the Collon men en route to the semis and Mattock themselves didn't progress beyond the last eight.

Three players are getting married this year as well, which has disrupted preparations slightly, while the management team are hoping key forward David Reid recovers from injury in time for the group stages.

'We're in the toughest group, so we'll have our work cut out,' Clarke acknowledged.

'Cooley had Steven McDonnell with them when they beat us in the league and they moved very well. They were very impressive, very strong - a typical Armagh team - and Steven would be delighted with the physicality that they bring to it.

'I think that's probably something Aidan O'Rourke has been trying the last while to get with Louth, and straightaway Steven McDonnell has it with Cooley, but they also have some exceptionally good footballers.

'They're a bit more tactically astute this year. It was interesting the way they deployed Alan Page against us and they played a typical modern game with a sweeper and attacking half-backs. [Sean] Donnelly on the square is very good as well.

'O'Connell's are probably mid Louth's strongest team at the moment, they take a big lead from Jackie Agnew and they have been impressive. Cian Doyle is exceptional, but they have four great scoring forwards and that's probably been Cooley's downfall in the last few years.'

Already St Patrick's have laid down a marker by dominating the league and Clarke acknowledged that Paddy Keenan and co will take some stopping.

'Pats keep picking up players and producing players and they really are head and shoulders above the rest. They're the team to beat, but then again everyone has off days and the Blues were able to get them last year.

'The Blues have won with mickey-mouse teams, with four or five teams better than them, but there's a knack to winning championships and the Blues know how to win them.

'If all teams play their best teams, A should beat B and C should beat D, but the whole dynamics of football has changed between holidays and going to America, and on any particular day you could have two in America, two on holidays and two injured, and if the other team are lucky enough to have arranged themselves properly and kept their players at home.... Eamonn McEneaney put an embargo on holidays last year for the Geraldines and they reaped their rewards.

'No team is unbeatable, so we'll give it a go. The big thing is, is the will there, but a number of the boys stayed on this year to have another go and it would be quite some record for some of them to have five championship medals.'

Drogheda Independent

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