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Monday 27 January 2020

One step from Croker!

Rathgarogue-Cushinstown in All-Ireland Junior semi

Eoin Porter, Barry Murphy (selector) and Pádraig McGrath after the Leinster final victory in Navan
Eoin Porter, Barry Murphy (selector) and Pádraig McGrath after the Leinster final victory in Navan

Alan Aherne

The footballers of Rathgarogue-Cushinstown will come up against a kindred spirit when they take on Blackhill Emeralds from Monaghan in a novel AIB All-Ireland Club Junior football championship semi-final in St. Conleth's Park, Newbridge, on Saturday (1.30pm).

While both sides will approach the contest on a high after their memorable provincial victories, they share a similar-type recent history as they endured plenty of heartbreak before the good times arrived.

Rathgarogue-Cushinstown's struggles to escape from Junior ranks after being relegated in 2005 have been well documented, and they have only turned the corner since October of last year with successive county title victories.

In Blackhill's case, they lost three Monaghan finals on the trot before finally getting over the line, while their Ulster victory before Christmas arrived three years after enduring defeat at the same stage to Rock from Tyrone by one point after extra-time.

The Farney men won four games to secure their straight knockout county championship crown, accounting for Eire Og (1-12 to 1-6), Clones (3-13 to 2-13), Toome (0-14 to 1-6), and finally a fancied Drumhowan in the final by 3-8 to 2-8.

While their league campaign in Monaghan was indifferent, finishing sixth in the table thanks to four wins in their final five matches, it perhaps painted a false picture as five of their losses were by very tight margins.

Their manager, Aidan McCabe, was formerly in charge of the Cavan ladies, and he steered his team over the first hurdle in Ulster when they beat Maguiresbridge from Fermanagh by 1-16 to 0-9 in the quarter-final on October 20 in Grattan Park, Inniskeen.

A native of Cootehill, his local knowledge was clearly a help when they went on to edge past Cavan champions Killinkere by 1-14 to 2-9 after extra-time in the Armagh Athletic Grounds to secure a berth in the decider 13 days later.

One of their key men in that victory was right half-forward Philip Donnelly, who ditched an Irish League soccer career with Warrenpoint Town some months ago in order to give his full focus to the Blackhill cause.

And they went into the Ulster final against Buncrana as underdogs, as the Donegal side had knocked out competition specialists Rock from Tyrone - Blackhill's conquerors in 2016 - after a penalty shoot-out on the other side of the draw.

The final was played under floodlights in Healy Park, Omagh, on November 16, and it showcased the quality of Rathgarogue-Cushinstown's opponents as they collected an overdue first-ever provincial crown on a 1-11 to 0-9 scoreline.

It didn't look good at half-time when they trailed by 0-8 to 0-5 after losing the influential Donnelly to a black card, but their resilience shone through in the second period when they outscored a Buncrana side powered by two Donegal Seniors of recent vintage in Ryan Bradley and Darach O'Connor by 1-6 to 0-1.

And team manager McCabe underlined his attention to detail the following morning, taking a hastily-arranged flight to Leeds to watch Thomas McCurtain's from London defeat Glasgow Gaels in the British Junior final, gaining a place in the All-Ireland series against Blackhill in the process.

Just like Fethard experienced on their hurling exploits in 2017, the trip to McGovern Park in Ruislip was a great adventure for the Monaghan club, with hundreds of supporters also making the journey to witness a 2-11 to 0-10 success.

That arrived one day after Rathgarogue-Cushinstown's memorable Leinster triumph in Navan, and the events of that weekend in early December left both sets of players chomping at the bit over the festive period.

Two Blackhill players - full-back Donal Courtney and corner-forward Michael Geehan - were selected on the 'Gaelic Life' newspaper Ulster Club football All-Stars team, with three more making the shortlist - defender Ryan Courtney, midfielder Ciarán Courtney who can also operate at full-forward, and wing-forward Philip Donnelly, while McCabe was one of three shortlisted for manager of the year.

They are captained from midfield by Hugh Byrne, a versatile long-time Monaghan Senior hurler, with their eight-game unbeaten championship streak leaving them just one hour away from Croke Park.

That's a record matched by Rathgarogue-Cushinstown, as they haven't lost since a precious 0-11 each draw with neighbours Adamstown in Taghmon on August 3 kept them in the hunt for county honours.

Craanford were blitzed in their final group game by 4-22 to 0-7, and a first-ever Intermediate 'A' county title followed thanks to knockout wins over Cloughbawn (4-16 to 1-3), Kilmore (3-8 to 2-7), and Clongeen (5-9 to 2-9).

While their scoring returns weren't as prolific in the Leinster campaign, they have come through four hard-fought contests that will leave them battle-hardened for this toughest test of the lot.

Mooncoin from Kilkenny offered stout resistance before succumbing by 1-14 to 1-9 in Graiguenamanagh, and O'Kennedy Park then played host to successive victories over Dublin's Craobh Chiaráin by 0-11 to 0-6, and Shannonbridge from Offaly on a 1-8 to 0-7 scoreline.

The final in Páirc Tailteann, Navan, was a real cliff-hanger, but James Bolger's troops kept their wits about them to pull through after extra-time by 0-13 to 0-12.

They will be hoping influential midfielder Daniel Martin Carroll is fully recovered from the ankle injury sustained in the first-half of that tie on December 7, as he is a key operator along with centre-back Eoin Porter, centre-forward Daire Bolger, wing-back Brian O'Neill, the three Cody brothers - team captain Matthew, Peadar and Tadhg - plus their big ball-winner, Bernard Furlong.

The choice of venue has been kind to Rathgarogue-Cushinstown, as Newbridge is a relatively short hop up the road, and followers of the green and gold will be out in force again to hopefully give the players that extra push in their quest to realise a dream and become the first-ever Wexford club football team to make it to Croker for an All-Ireland final.

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