Graham Tarmac Antrim JFC semi-final
O’Donnell’s v Éire Óg (McRory Park, Saturday, 3pm)
BOTH O’Donnell’s and Éire Óg will be vying to reach their first Junior Championship final in over a decade when they face off in the semi final on Saturday.

O’Donnell’s won all of their group games to ensure they progressed straight to the semi final stage, whilst Éire Óg overcame Laochra 2-14 to 0-8 in the quarter final to set up a meeting with the West Belfast side.

O’Donnell’s boss Joe Herald is delighted to have got to this stage with a young squad, but is trying to keep their feet on the ground ahead of the knockout tie.

“It’s been about twelve years since O’Donnell’s have been in a junior semi final, so it’s been a while since we’ve been in this territory,” he said.

“The people at the club are getting excited but we are trying to keep grounded, we have quite a young panel.

“I took the job in the middle of Covid so this is really the first year we’ve had a full season with a pre season too and the excitement is there, but we’re not getting too ahead of ourselves.”

The manager believes confidence is high at the club after they topped the group ahead of the likes of Pearse’s and their opponents on Saturday Éire Óg, who he was able to scout with O’Donnell’s not in action.

“We always wanted to try win the group, Pearse’s and Éire Óg were in our group so it was quite tough, we had good battles with them,” he reflected.

“Not having that quarter-final meant I could watch Éire Óg, and they’re quite a different team to the one we played at the start of the year.

“They had a good win again Laochra so they’ll have a bit of momentum so we don’t want to be caught cold”.”

Herald is hopeful that the break without competitive action will not hinder his side ahead of Saturday.

“Sometimes with a break you can lose some momentum,” he admits.

“We have some lads who play soccer and they were involved in the Irish Cup, so we need to manage them and make sure they’re recovering well.

“We did try to get a few challenge games in but they didn’t come off. We’re here in semi final week anyway that’s the main thing.”

The boss is expecting a tough tie against a dogged Éire Óg side.

“Anytime we’ve played Éire Óg it’s been quite tight,” he admits.

“They play a defensive system and it looks like they’ve picked up a few lads from different counties who can play a wee bit up front.

“They’re super defensive but they’ve added to their forward line which makes them even more dangerous.”

Herald believes that reaching the final would impact positively upon the club at all levels.

“There’s quite a lot of work going on at the club at youth level and the goal is to give those kids something to aspire to,” he confirmed.

“As it’s been twelve years since we were in this territory it’s almost missed a generation so it’s great for the kids to have a buzz about the club.

“We take nothing for granted it’s a Junior semi-final and it’s all about getting over the line and getting through to the final.”

Meanwhile, Éire Óg captain Conor McKenna is equally proud of his side’s performances so far in getting to this stage and believes they will relish the occasion.

“We’re just taking it as another game,” he stressed.

“It is exciting, I get excited for any match, but with it being a semi final it’s heightened.

“We haven’t been in a semi final for a good few years so there’s a good buzz about the lads, we’re looking forward to it.”

The skipper was under no illusion as to just how tough an opponent O’Donnell’s will be on Saturday, given the recent results between the two sides.

“They are a very experienced team who have beaten us the last two times we’ve played them, so if we don’t make a good start they could run away with it very early,” he warned.

“Laochra brought a lot of intensity in the first half in the quarter final and died a death in the second half which we capitalised on, but I think O’Donnell’s will be a lot stronger from start to finish.”

McKenna is optimistic however, that Éire Óg can spring an upset at the weekend.

“If we play the right way we can get scores, if we don’t play the way we know we can play we will struggle,” he acknowledges.

“It depends if we show up. They are a very good team, they won all their group games, beat us and did very well in the league, which is overlooked, so they will be a tough team to play against.

“It’s Championship football everyone goes in wanting to win, they’re definitely the favourites, but we have to believe we can do it. We must show up and play well.”

Reaching the final on a personal note, would be big for McKenna.

He was 19 the last time Éire Óg featured in the final, when they lost by a single point at Casement Park.

Now at 30, he is determined to add another final appearance to his CV, albeit with a better outcome.

“Last time we got to the final was 2011,” he reflected.

“I was 19 playing midfield and now I’m 30, so that’s how long it’s been.

“You think at that age you can get to finals every year but they don’t come around that often, so it would be a massive achievement to get to there.”