Graham Tarmac Antrim JFC semi-final
St Malachy’s v Pearse’s (Cherryvale, Saturday, 3pm)

ST MALACHY’S captain Ciaran Vernon believes his side will have to be at their best on Saturday if they stand any chance of overcoming Pearse’s in the Antrim Junior Football Championship semi-final.

St Malachy’s have not played since the end of August, when they defeated Laochra 1-7 to 1-6 to secure top spot in Group Two and their passage straight to the semi-final.

Vernon was understandably proud of that result and to have reached this stage of the competition, as their form in the Championship this campaign has been a far cry from results in previous years.

“Considering where we have been in the last few years it’s amazing to get this far,” he said.

“I think this is the first semi-final we’ve been in seven or eight years.

“This time last year we had one point in the league and we beat Éire Óg in the last game of the group stages when both of us were already out, so to come from that to where we are now it’s a great achievement for us already.

“We thought we were down and out for a while there but now to be where we are is great.”

Indeed, St Malachy’s have been one of the in-form teams this calender year as Vernon explained.

“From the split in the league we haven’t been beaten, we’ve won eight in a row so there is a bit of momentum coming into this game, so we’re happy with where we are at the minute,” he continued.

Despite the positivity at the club, Vernon still concedes that they will need a near inch perfect performance against Pearse’s if they are to reach the final.

“I think we’ll need everything to go our way on the day. Pearse’s, will be favourites to edge us,” he accepts.

“They finished in the top half of the league and they might have had a wee blip against O’Donnell’s but they went out and proved their quality against Aggies in the quarter final.

“It will be a big ask for us, they beat us comfortably in the league so I think we need to be at the top of our game just to compete with them.

“Pearse’s had another proper game under their belts with the quarter final so I think they will be raring to go against us.”

With high stakes between the two sides the game has the potential to have a derby feel to it, but Vernon was quick to play down any rivalry and insists there is actually a lot of respect between the teams.

“To be fair there isn’t much needle between the two clubs, we actually get on quite well,” he insists.

“There’s always been a mutual respect between the two clubs, it’s different when one of the two goes and plays a side in West Belfast.”

He acknowledges that friendships will have to be put aside on Saturday afternoon and he is hopeful that his side can rise to the occasion at the weekend despite the odds being against them.

“You have to be quietly confident going into the game that we can get the win,” he added.

“It would mean a lot to the club to get to the final considering we haven’t been anywhere near it in the last number of years.

“We hadn’t won a championship game apart from Éire Óg last year in a while so the club would be delighted to get there if, and it’s a big if, we can get to the final.”

Standing in their way of reaching the final are North Belfast side Pearse’s, who bounced back from a defeat by O’Donnell’s to secure a six point quarter final win over St Agnes’.

The experienced Aodhan McCavana was relieved to get over the line and back to winning ways at Páirc Éanna, but believes there is still room for improvement from Pearse’s.

“It was a good performance against St Agnes’,  but it was by no means perfect,” he agreed.

“The win does give us confidence but we know ourselves that although we played well for large spells of the game, we need to improve and we’ve had to work hard in training this week as we know it’s always a tough game against St Malachy’s.

“With it being a semi-final we’ll have to step it up that little bit more to make sure we’re ready for Saturday so, although we do take a good bit of confidence from the win, there’s no point  dwelling on it, we’re fully focused on Saturday.”

Pearse's bounced back from defeat to O'Donnell's with a win over St Agnes'

Pearse's bounced back from defeat to O'Donnell's with a win over St Agnes'

McCavana is expecting a physical battle against St Malachy’s, but is hopeful his side will rise to the challenge and their forward line can once again help them to victory as they did against St Agnes’.

“Our forward line always is key, they played very well against St Agnes’,  as did everyone,” he reflected.

“They will have a big say in getting us over the line but we know St Malachy’s are a tough physical side so we need to overcome that and then the forwards can help us.”

The Pearse’s player is expecting a tense game and is hopefully that his side can end St Malachy’s impressive recent unbeaten run.

“Being a semi-final there will be that extra edge, we narrowly beat them in the league earlier this year, but you can’t really take that into consideration because, as cliched as it sounds, the Championship is a completely different ball game.

“It will be whoever performs best on the day, we feel prepared.

“St Malachy’s won their three group games and their last five league games before that, so that’s eight wins on the bounce.

“As well prepared as we are, we’d be foolish not to take them seriously. They’ve had a good run and we’re under no illusion as to the challenge ahead.”

McCavana is relishing the chance to potentially play his part in helping Pearse’s reach the final.

“These are the sort of games you want to be playing in, you train hard all year to play these big games and it’s down to us to put in a good performance and hopefully get to the final.”