In an era when defensive systems and team strategies define Gaelic football, next Sunday’s Connacht Gold Leitrim Senior Championship Final looks all set to come down to the outcome of several key individual battles that makes the meeting of Champions Glencar/Manorhamilton and Melvin Gaels so intriguing and so difficult to predict.
Billed at the start of the championship, and some would say the second last year’s Intermediate Championship concluded, as the two top teams in the county, this year’s final is historic for so many reasons.
The first ever all north Leitrim final in over 100 years of the GAA in the county is an historic enough occasion but added to the fact that Glencar/Manorhamilton are aiming for an unprecedented five-in-a-row, never before achieved, only serves to heighten the stakes and the tension.
Both Melvin Gaels and Glencar/Manorhamilton are tied in the overall roll of honour with six titles apiece; victory next Sunday would edge one ahead of the other.
But most of all, next Sunday is all about one of the most intense rivalries in Leitrim club football – it is Glencar/Manorhamilton against Melvin Gaels and that more than anything over-shadows almost everything.
Think that is an exaggeration? Well, the hype for the three-in-a-row for Glencar/Manorhamilton two years ago was far greater, far more intense than anything that has been witnessed so far this year about the so-called “Drive for Five”.
In fact, the most talk about the “Drive for Five” comes not from Manorhamilton but their neighbours up the road as Glencar/Manorhamilton are obsessed not with creating a unique slice of history but rather with stopping Melvin Gaels from taking the Fenagh Cup through Manorhamilton on their way home to Kinlough next Sunday evening.
And in many ways, that is to their benefit – instead of dealing with the drama and tension and the questions about the five-in-a-row, Glencar/Manorhamilton’s minds are concentrated on just one thing, beating their greatest rivals for the ultimate prize in Leitrim club football.
If that all benefits the reigning champions, Melvin Gaels can justifiably go into Sunday’s Final with an immense amount of confidence, a confidence they have displayed in almost every match they have lined out this year, a confidence that will see them go into the Final convinced that they can win their first Senior title since 1998.
Both teams exhibit the work-rate and adherence to tactical systems that is de-rigueur nowadays for any successful and those hoping for a free-flowing classic encounter that we know both teams are so capable of may be disappointed as they fought out a dour draw in the first round of the championship.
Both teams saw fit that day to deploy an extra defender, meaning space was at a premium for attackers as both went out to negate each other’s attacking strengths, something that can so easily happen as we saw in the last two County Finals when concentrating on stopping the opposition led to stop-start encounters where free-taking and defensive solidity was king.
Yet with both teams so similar, emphasising enormous work-rate from their half-forward line, scavenging for the ball with ferocious intent and moving back and forth in waves, it is likely that Sunday’s Final comes down to what key individuals on either side perform the best.
For the Champions, James Glancy and Adrian Croal carry the leadership role but equally important will be the performances of Paddy Maguire, Darren Sweeney, Pat Gilmartin & Aaron Hickey.
For Melvin Gaels, Emlyn Mulligan is the fulcrum of everything the Kinlough men do well, his scoring ability boosted by a play-makers role that creates opportunities for the likes of David McSharry, Conor Sheridan and Peter McGowan to thrive on.
But just as crucial will be the impact of Paul Brennan, the County man probably the Gaels most impressive performer all this championship, and the likes of Shane Ryan & Brendan Brennan.
Just how the match-ups will pan out is anyone guess – Glencar/Manor could quite easily detail any one of Pat Gilmartin, Adrian O’Flynn or Paddy Maguire to stop the influence of Mulligan, Gilmartin enjoying quite a good deal of success in that particular role down through the years.
On the other side, stopping Croal and Glancy will be equally difficult for Melvin Gaels back-line, a unit that relies on pace and Donegal style massed defending when the man in possession is harried and hassled into mistakes and missed chances.
Glencar/Manor will try to isolate Glancy & Croal and Melvin Gaels may counter by dropping the likes of Conor Sheridan or Paul Brennan back to counter the outstanding attacking duo in the county. Croal is beginning to approach his best after illness early in the year while injury has hindered Glancy’s form but the County star is a great man for rising to the occasion.
The midfield battle may be just that, an enormous battle when the four named midfielders are likely to be supplemented by as many as six or ten more players, all battling for turn-over ball to supply their dangerous forwards.
The truth is that Finals between two great local rivals never tend to be great games, the one exception being Allen Gaels stunning replay win over St. Mary’s in 1995. Of course, that came after a drawn game as dour and as hard hitting as you can imagine and once the teams got that out of their system, they produced an epic encounter.
When it comes to making a prediction for Sunday’s Final, it would be easy to sit on the fence - convincing arguments can be made about both sides but all that really matters is who produces on the day.
Glencar/Manorhamilton are regarded as having the more potent forward line but Melvin Gaels have been the undisputed scoring kings this year in this year’s Championship, displaying the sort of overwhelming force that has battered teams into submission.
Those favouring Melvin Gaels rightly point out that the reigning Champions have yet to produce anything near their best football this year, that they have been somewhat subdued and without the flair of previous years.
That is true but it is equally true that Glencar/Manorhamilton are still winning matches and all they need do know is produce one perfect performance to write themselves down in the history books.
With such evenly balanced teams, it will come down to the mental attitude more than anything, whether players see it as an opportunity to write their name in lights or fear making the mistake that could cost their team.
In that regard, the one danger I would see to Melvin Gaels is if they abandon the free-flowing football that has served them so well since their draw against Manor in the first game in favour of a more defensive approach, seeking to stop the champions rather than exploit their pace and fitness, particularly on the flanks.
Glencar/Manorhamilton proved against St. Mary’s that they have a killer instinct that every team would love to possess – if the game is tight in the final stretch, many would put their money on the champions.
And just to give a flavour of the mood around the county over the last three weeks, most football people I have talked to are predicting a win for the champions, opting for their greater scoring power and experience to prove the difference on the day.
That, no more than this preview, is just an opinion but the opinion seems to be when it comes to individual match-ups, Glencar/Manorhamilton have the personnel to stop Melvin Gaels’ top men and their ability to win tight games will see them through.
If I was forced to give a verdict, I’d go with the champions to prevail but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we end up with a second day out!