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Mix of familiar and exotic as clubs look to march to glory in Paddy's Day finals

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Richie Feeney, Castlebar Mitchels. Picture: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Richie Feeney, Castlebar Mitchels. Picture: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Richie Feeney, Castlebar Mitchels. Picture: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

WHAT special quality makes you an All-Ireland club champion? Is it the X-factor potential of your marquee county men? The rich history of your own club, a pedigree that imbues the latest generation with an unshakeable belief on the biggest day?

Maybe it's the school of hard knocks from which you've emerged – a hugely competitive county championship that will test the limits of your resolve?

Or, rather, does it all boil down to the specific circumstances of a one-off campaign? You know the script; management and players singing from the same hymn sheet, you hit form, confidence soars, fortune favours the brave and – before you know it – you're climbing the Hogan steps on St Patrick's Day.

This column has a confession to make; a clandestine love affair with club final day. We concede that, logically, it would make symmetrical sense to play off the competition in a calendar year. Yes, we know it gatecrashes the busiest period of the GAA season, slap bang in the middle of the national league and provincial U21 football campaigns.

But, well, Paddy's Day in Croker has its own unique charm, far above and beyond the convenient bonus of being the perfect excuse for avoiding parades.

Next Monday, the GAA's own club parade takes place off the Jones's Road. There's a mix of the familiar and the exotic about our two pairings; in the hurling you have Portumna, one of the all-time greats, returning in search of a fourth All-Ireland against Mount Leinster Rangers, who are not alone first-time finalists, but Carlow trailblazers too.

On to the football, where St Vincent's are seeking a third crown – and nearly half their team will be chasing a second medal, having won the All-Ireland as recently as 2008. They face Castlebar Mitchels, who have never won this competition, and will be hoping to fare much better than their club forebears, hammered by Nemo Rangers in the 1994 decider.

It took Castlebar another two decades to emerge from Mayo. Once they had done so, last October, they were blithely discounted by the bookies at virtually every fence – but they kept clearing each obstacle and now they're an hour from paradise.

Given the above contrasts, punters and pundits are left with some difficult choices before picking a winner next Monday. As a helpful guide, you could examine our protagonists under the categories alluded to above: (1) marquee men, (2) tradition, (3) how tough is your county? and (4) this is our year, our destiny.

MARQUEE MEN

HURLING: Portumna have the second most high-profile hurler in Ireland (after King Henry) in Joe Canning, a man born to the club final stage. Not to mention his buzzing sidekick, Damien Hayes. Mount Leinster have plenty of Carlow county hurlers, but there can only be one winner here ...

VERDICT: Portumna

FOOTBALL: Ironically, St Vincent's have survived several hurdles en route without their All-Ireland winning Dubs, Diarmuid Connolly and Ger Brennan. But presuming both start, and you throw in the consistent match-winning form of retired Sky Blue Tomas Quinn, they have a powerful hand. Castlebar have one All-Ireland finalist from last year (Tom Cunniffe) and two familiar Mayo subs (Barry Moran and Richie Feeney).

VERDICT: St Vincent's

TRADITION

HURLING: Portumna won an incredible three All-Irelands between '06 and '09, while, overall, Galway clubs lead the Tommy Moore Cup table with 12 titles. Just contrast this with the mighty men of Borris, who are entering a brave new world – for both club and county.

VERDICT: Portumna

FOOTBALL: Vincent's have twice lifted the Andy Merrigan Cup, whereas Castlebar have never managed it, coming up short in '94. Dublin clubs have accumulated six All-Irelands; Mayo two. Meanwhile, the Vinnies remain miles ahead in the Dublin SFC roll of honour, whereas Castlebar, who trail Ballina Stephenites in the Mayo record books, have won marginally more county titles (28) than their Marino rivals.

VERDICT: St Vincent's

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR COUNTY?

HURLING: Again, the odds favour Portumna – definitive proof coming in the fact that two of the last three All-Ireland winners (Clarinbridge and St Thomas's) hail from Galway. Mount Leinster's local supremacy is confirmed by one statistic (they've won six of the last eight Carlow finals), but considering who they have ambushed since, you can't accuse them of living on Easy Street.

VERDICT: Portumna

FOOTBALL: Dublin is the toughest of them all. Three different clubs have won five of the last seven Leinster titles. Moreover, winning an All-Ireland (as Vins did in '08, and Kilmacud in '09) is no guarantee of retaining your Dublin crown later that year. Mayo club football is competitive, for sure, but recent standards haven't quite matched this stellar level. VERDICT: St Vincent's

THIS IS OUR YEAR, OUR DESTINY

HURLING: Sometimes, a supposed also-ran builds up a head of steam and nothing will stop them. Mount Leinster were 10/3 outsiders against Ballyboden, 13/5 underdogs against Oulart and 2/1 against Loughgiel. If you wagered a tenner on the first of those games and kept on reinvesting, you'd be €468 richer. If you put the lot on another final upset (at 10/3), you could have €2,028 in your back pocket leaving Croker. Or nothing!

VERDICT: Mount Leinster

FOOTBALL: We'll apply the same rationale to our Mayo friends. Castlebar were 7/2 to beat Corofin; they were 15/8 to topple St Brigid's and 5/2 to ambush Dr Crokes. That same tenner would now be worth €452. Now put the lot on Castlebar next Monday (at 7/4) and if all goes to plan, you'll have €1,245 to celebrate! VERDICT: Castlebar


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