Croal question casts shadow on repeat County Final

Last year the focus may have been on Glencar/Manorhamilton’s pursuit of the fabled three-in-a-row but even as they chase a fourth successive Fenagh Cup next Sunday in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, St. Mary’s Kiltoghert will call on their memoires of 12 months ago as they seek to dethrone the Connacht Gold Leitrim Senior Football Champions.

Last year the focus may have been on Glencar/Manorhamilton’s pursuit of the fabled three-in-a-row but even as they chase a fourth successive Fenagh Cup next Sunday in Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, St. Mary’s Kiltoghert will call on their memoires of 12 months ago as they seek to dethrone the Connacht Gold Leitrim Senior Football Champions.

By John Connolly

Such is the anticipation around next Sunday’s County Senior Final that few are commenting on the fact that Glenn Young’s team are chasing a four in a row, something that has only ever been achieved by Melvin Gaels from 1959 to 1962 and Gorvagh from 1924 to 1927, more of the focus on the fact that the Senior Final will feature its first repeat of the previous year for the first time since 1990!

The pressure to achieve the three-in-a-row seemed greater last year but that won’t stop the north Leitrim men from seeking to indelibly stamp their name on the Leitrim GAA Roll of Honour.

Yet most of the build-up has been completely over-shadowed by the ‘will-he, won’t he’ drama surrounding Adrian Croal. The Leitrim star could miss next Sunday’s Final after he suffered a suspected broken nose in a League game against Annaduff less than two weeks ago, many feeling that the loss of the corner-forward will drastically alter the balance of power for the two teams.

That may seem an outrageous statement, particularly given the talent available to both clubs next Sunday and neither team can be described as anything remotely like a one-man outfit but the potential absence of the Glencar/Manorhamilton forward significantly alters how both teams will approach this Final.

With their full-forward line of Croal, Brian McDonald and James Glancy, stopping the Manor forward machine is an impossible task as most teams can just about cope with two quality forwards but stopping all three almost seems like trying to hold the tide back!

Croal has been the shining light this year in the championship of a Glencar/Manorhamilton full-forward line that has ripped the hearts out of all comers, apart from Bornacoola in their first game.

St. Mary’s Jonathan Cassidy & Dermot Reynolds are two exceptional man-markers, Cassidy playing a key role in halting Annaduff’s charge in the semi-final when he was moved to mark Ray Cox. The expectation is, if Croal does not play, that the Carrick duo will immediately head for James Glancy & Brian McDonald.

And that is what the absence of Croal does straight away - St. Mary’s no longer have the dilemna of pitting two against three while Glencar/Manor’s confidence would take a hit, no matter how much inspiration the sight of injured Croal will provide.

Both teams can already point to injuries - the traumatic broken leg suffered by James Gilmartin in the Bornacoola game obviously contributed to their only loss of the campaign while St. Mary’s can justly claim equally as grevious losses with the long term absences of Ray Mulvey, Jimmy Guckian and Micheal McWeeney.

The difference is that Croal’s loss so close to the Final, it is much more of a hammer blow pyschologically as St. Mary’s have had time to adjust and overcome from their absences.

Of course, there are conspiracy theorists who will claim that the injury scare is all just a scam cooked up by Glencar/Manor to throw St. Mary’s off balance and that Croal is bound to play some part in next Sunday’s Final!

Whether that comes to pass is anyone’s guess, and it wouldn’t the first miraclous recovery ahead of big game. The latest information is that Croal will see another specialist this week, the attacker eager to play his part in next Sunday’s Final.

Last week, all the information coming out of Glencar/Manor camp suggested that Croal was definitely out but at the time of going to press on Tuesday, it is 50-50 as to whether he will play any part next Sunday.

If Croal doesn’t play, there may be an unexpected benefit for the chamions as, from talking with football fans around the county, Glencar/Manor are regarded as next near impossible to stop but Croal’s absence will reduce the burden of favouritism and concentrate Manor mind’s all the more on Sunday’s Final.

In many ways, the “Croal question” has over-shadowed quite a few other sub-plots ahead of this Final - St. Mary’s are unbeaten in this campaign and an impressive win over Annaduff in the semi-final sees them hit top form at just the right time while the Champions have crushed all before them after their blip against Bornacoola.

A few things have changed since last year’s County Final. Daniel & Robbie Lowe’s year with the County Senior set-up has obviously had as much an impact on the Carrick brothers as it has had on Brian McDonald & Adrian Croal, so much so that St. Mary’s can conceiveably expect to have the edge in the midfield battle just as Croal & McDonald are vastly superior players to this time last year.

For the first time since their amazing championship run began, Manor haven’t lost too many players from the previous campaign and their strength in depth give the champions so many options, options that increase when you consider the verstility of so many of their central players.

Yet St. Mary’s depth chart appears to have been greatly strengthened with Clement Cunniffe & Joe O’Rourke used as hugely important impact subs, Cunniffe in particular playing the role of super-sub to great effect this year. The question now is whether to hold them in reserve or start them, a tough one for manager Brendan Guckian to ponder.

Considering that they could start next Sunday’s Final without Jimmy Guckian, Conor Daly, Ray Mulvey and Gene Bohan from last year’s starting team, it seems incredible to suggest that St. Mary’s may actually have better strength in depth in 2011 but the influx of Conor Farrell, Conor McWeeney, Colm O’Reilly and Joe O’Rourke from last year’s Minor winning team have made a big impact.

Glencar/Manor, however, are what they have always been - fiercely commited, incredibly mobile and possessing a confidence bordering on arrogance, justifbly given their record and they way they have demolished teams this year.

To read the full story see this week’s Leitrim Observer.