Northern Switchgear Antrim SFC final
Creggan v Aghagallon (Corrigan Park, Sunday, 2.30pm, live on Páirc TV)
THE Padraig McNamee Cup will have a new home in 2021. The question is will it be travelling a few miles up the road to Creggan for the first time since 1954 or will it arrive at Aghagallon for the first time ever?
Sunday’s novel pairing was made possible by two remarkable semi-final victories.
Aghagallon battled their way past Portglenone at Dunsilly, requiring two periods of extra-time to seal a 1-19 to 1-18 victory. As it transpired, the game ought to have gone to penalties when the sides were tied after 80 minutes. Casement’s wisely and sportingly opted against appealing the result to the Ulster Council.
If St Mary’s caused an upset by beating a fancied Portglenone side, then Creggan caused the biggest shock of the Championship by eliminating the four in-a-row-seeking holders Cargin at Naomh Éanna.
The Kickhams got off to the worst possible start as Tomás McCann’s goal helped the Toome men open up a five-point lead after just five minutes.
Despite Pat Shivers landing a second goal for Cargin, who held 2-5 to 0-7 at the break, Creggan turned in a dominant second half performance to win 0-16 to 2-7.
Amid the euphoric celebrations, manager Gerald McNulty was keen to remind his players that noting was won at Hightown.
Having missed out on Championship glory in 2018 and 2020 at the hands of their nearest neighbours, there remains one more significant hurdle to clear.
“We’ve only won another game and that’s how we treat this,” stated McNulty.
“That’s how we treated St John’s, that’s how we treated Cargin and that’s how we’ll treat Aghagallon.
“We know there are Championships in this team. But they have to win one to win more. Cargin have won three in a row. They are a great club.
“It has been a long-time coming – over the last three or four years, we’ve lost out to Cargin, but now we’ve beat Cargin in the Championship.
“We’ve put a lot of work in and the biggest thing was sticking to the gameplan. It was probably one of those days when everything went right, but some of our score-taking was outstanding and our defending was excellent.”
While the accuracy of Jamie and Ruairi McCann from frees was a huge factor in their win, it was the sheer physicality of their approach that was, arguably, the most impressive facet of Creggan’s semi-final victory.
Conor McCann set the tone with a thunderous early hit on Kevin O’Boyle and the Antrim hurling captain delivered a superb performance at midfield. Marty Johnston wasn’t far behind and he landed a stunning point moments after Shivers found the net for Cargin.
“I told the boys at half-time that it was seven scores each,” said McNulty.
“The only reason they were in front was because they got two goals. We sat and we talked about the next 30 minutes. There is resolve and great belief in this team now.
“If you look at the performance of young Ethan Carey on Jamie Gribbin - outstanding.
“Eunan McAteer - outstanding. The same with Ricky and Marty Johnston. That’s the fittest and strongest I’ve seen Marty Johnston.
“He’s a Rolls Royce and did his job to the letter. The biggest player for us in terms of strength and leadership was Conor McCann in the middle of the field.”
🏆 Who will be crowned 2021 @NorthSwitchgear @AontroimGAA SFC champions? Can this @KickhamsCreggan team finally get over the line? Or will @aghagallongaa take the honours in their 1st ever SFC final?— PáircTV (@PaircTV) November 10, 2021
🖥 Find out with us this Sunday at 2.30pm live on https://t.co/earFmHHEaC. pic.twitter.com/oOH9HdSCMQ
While Creggan have an abundance of talent at their disposal, Aghagallon aren’t short on star quality themselves.
Luke Mulholland, Ruairi McCann, Adam Loughran and Eunan Walsh were all part of the Antrim set-up this year while Pat Brannigan and Gareth Magee have been in superb form for St Mary’s this season.
While Kevin Murray insists the controversy surrounding the Portglenone game is “water under the bridge”, he believes the experience of coming through such a rigorous test will stand to his players as they prepare for their first Antrim SFC final.
“For us, getting over the line against Portglenone was the main thing and going through that emotion all stand to our players,” said Murray.
“From a personal point of view, going through that was a learning experience of myself as well, but our lads will learn a lot too.
“Our lads have been through it this year. The Lámh Dhearg games were very tight, the games against Naomh Éanna and then against Portglenone. Even the St Brigid’s game – there wasn’t much between the teams. Every game has been competitive so we are in the final on merit as well.
“It is the first time the club were in a semi-final. We were disappointed last year that we didn’t get over the line against Lámh Dhearg. Their goal came at the right time for them.
“Every campaign, we’ve been trying to learn and the players have aspirations of being among the top teams every year.
“They want to get better and they want to improve. We are now one of two teams left in the Championship so that’s evidence of some of that belief and where they are taking it to on the pitch.”
As first-time finalists coming up against a side which have lost two finals in three seasons, including last year’s after extra-time, Aghagallon are underdogs for Sunday’s decider in Corrigan Park.
Murray is fully aware that Creggan’s confidence will be sky-high after defeating Cargin and knows they’ve the advantage of playing in recent county finals.
“Creggan are a phenomenal team,” added Murray.
“They been there in finals over the last number of years. They are one of the top teams in Antrim and they got over the massive mountain of Cargin and that’s a great achievement for them.
“They’ll obviously want to take that next step and win the final. They’ve been pushing for that over the last number of years.
“In any final, there is pressure on both teams. It is about who can perform on the day. Creggan have been in that position quite a few times.
“They’ve been there and they know the emotion that comes with the build-up to the game.”
That Creggan have returned to the county final minus the services of two of their starting forwards is a testament to their strength-in-depth with Conor Small and Liam Quinn both ruled out until the 2022 season.
Aghagallon have a major doubt over the fitness of Loughran with the Antrim panellist restricted to substitute appearances against both St Brigid’s and Portglenone as he continues his recovery from a hamstring strain.
His absence from the starting 15 would reduce the potency of the Aghagallon attack, but he is likely to feature at some stage.
The two Ruairi McCanns may also come toe-to-toe as both men can switch from attacking positions to occupy a more central role.
Kickouts, as ever, will be vital and the two front-runners for the Antrim goalkeeping jersey bid to lead their teams to glory on Sunday.
Luke Mulholland ended the Championship as Antrim’s number one, but Oisin Kerr has been in fine form for the Kickhams this season and made a brilliant point-blank save to deny Conor Johnston a late equaliser against St John’s in the quarter-final.
Kerr has also embraced the ‘sweeper-keeper’ trend in the modern game and offered his defence an outlet on numerous occasions against Cargin.
Sunday’s decider promises to be every bit as close as the semi-finals and the prospect of extra-time can’t be ruled out.
However, Creggan’s greater experience in finals ought to stand to them. Having lost out to their rivals in 2018 and 2020, this could be the year the Kickhams finally get over the line.
Paths to the final
Round One: Creggan 2-14 St Gall’s 2-7
Round Two: Gort na Móna 0-3 Creggan 0-12
Round Three: St Gall’s 0-8 Creggan 2-9
Round Four: Creggan W/O Gort na Móna DNF
Quarter-final: Creggan 1-8 St John’s 0-8
Semi-final: Creggan 0-16 Cargin 2-7
Round One: Lámh Dhearg 3-14 Aghagallon 2-16
Round Two: Aghagallon 2-16 Aldergrove 2-8
Round Three: Naomh Éanna 1-12 Aghagallon 3-10
Round Four: Aghagallon 1-9 Lámh Dhearg 0-16
Round Five: Aldergrove 0-8 Aghagallon 4-15
Round Six: Aghagallon 1-13 Naomh Éanna 2-8
Quarter-final: Aghagallon 2-10 St Brigid’s 0-11
Semi-final: Aghagallon 1-19 Portglenone 1-18 AET