Allen Gaels Caleb Duffy under pressure from an Aughawillan defender Picture: Willie Donnellan
After eight long weeks, we're finally down to the business end of the Connacht Gold Senior and Smith Monumentals Intermediate Championships with the Quarter-Finals taking place in four venues next Sunday.
Moved to avoid a clash with the All-Ireland Football Final replay, next Sunday's games really are do or die as four teams will see their year come to an end on Sunday, their championship dreams ended for another year.
Of course, the teams that go out next Sunday do have one prize as they saved their championship status for another year but the prospect of lifting the Fenagh Cup has to drive these teams on.
The intensity and excitement should lift several levels with some really exciting games on the cards. We take a look at the games below
CONNACHT GOLD SENIOR FC QUARTER-FINALS
Melvin Gaels v St Mary's Kiltoghert in Ballinamore 12.30
Nobody is going to put too much money on this game as it really could go either way. In the League, the teams are separated by a point with the Carrick men on 15 points to the Gaels 14 but the Kinlough outfit won the League meeting between the two back in April 3-10 to 1-12.
Even their current championship form leaves you wondering - St Mary's had comfortable wins over Allen Gaels, Dromahair and Aughnasheelin, drew with Aughawillan in an exciting clash but were pretty much outclassed against Ballinamore. For their part, Melvin Gaels were in relegation trouble after they lost to Mohill and Drumreilly but three wins on the bounce since then, including ending Glencar/Manor's unbeaten record, suggests they are hitting form at the right time.
Darragh Rooney is the key figure for the Gaels, he is scoring goals every game and his pace and eye for a score is going to take some stopping from a Mary's defence without Micheal McWeeney. The question for the Gaels is giving Rooney enough support as they blend in some of their younger players.
For Mary's, they have also introduced a lot of young players who seem to have made a seamless transition. Mark Diffley is a potential match winner if his range is in but if Mary's can get Nicholas McWeeney, Ray Mulvey and Conor Farrell going, they will be very hard stopped.
This one will be close, no result will surprise me. I've been flip flopping on this one day by day. Today it is Melvin Gaels who get the nod, tomorrow it will be Mary's - you choose!
Glencar/Manorhamilton v Allen Gaels in Ballinamore 2.00
On paper, this one looks relatively straightforward as a potent Glencar/Manorhamilton team should have far too much strength and know-how for Allen Gaels. But matches aren't played on paper and the Drumshanbo men must make the north Leitrim work for victory.
The Gaels have shown flashes of ability and have gone toe to toe for long periods with the likes of Aughawillan, St Mary's and even Ballinamore but sustaining their effort is the problem. There is real talent there - the veteran James Flynn leads by example in the full-forward line and is good value for scores while the movement and pace of Ciaran Walsh and Caleb Duffy can cause problems.
For the Gaels, their problems are in sustaining their best form - they just haven't been able to do it for an hour and when the mistakes come, the head gone down and the scores mount up against them. It seems unlikely they can turn that sort of flaw around in a week unless they hit Manor for a few goals early on and work to hold them off.
Glencar/Manorhamilton look too experienced for that - Niall Brady, Evan Sweeney and Conor Dolan offer real attacking pace and an incisive edge so if they get any sort of possession, the scores will come. Defensively, the Manor men are transformed from their heydey but look to have enough strength to hold out the Gaels attack here.
Glencar/Manorhamilton to advance with comfort.
Ballinamore Sean O'Heslin's v Drumreilly in Avantcard Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada 4.30
This is an intriguing derby, one that Drumreilly will relish and they certainly won't like down but you honestly can't see them getting the better of an impressive Ballinamore Sean O'Heslin's who are most people's favourites for the title.
Drumreilly could give a lesson to clubs with better numbers on how to get the best out of their players and up against anyone but the very best, you'd have to give Drumreilly a great chance. They work incredibly hard for each other, in Raymond Fee, Nigel Maguire, the Holohan brothers and Declan Maxwell, they can plunder scores.
The addition of a few young players has invigorated Drumreilly but their achilles heel may come in defence where they have conceded quite a bit to the big teams and there is no bigger than Ballinamore Sean O'Heslin's.
Defensively solid and well organised, Ballinamore have pace in every sector with a couple of ready made replacements to come on if anyone is struggling. Oisin McCaffrey, Niall McGovern and Shane Moran give them a huge base in midfield while Dean McGovern, Tom Prior and the excellent Luke Murphy can score at will.
The only flaw I've seen to Ballinamore so far is that sometimes they bypass Shane Moran at centre-forward, it is hard to imagine them winning the Fenagh Cup without a big contribution from the County star but sometimes he is bypassed as the ball flies into the full-forward line.
Drumreilly will battle as if their lives depended on it but qualifying for the quarter-finals was their championship win, Ballinamore to advance comfortably.
Aughawillan v Mohill in Avantcard Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada 6.00
The tie of the weekend. A repeat of last year's County Final between the teams who have shared the title between them since 2013 when St Mary's were the last winners other than Aughawillan and Mohill. And both teams have a history of ending the title defence of the other side so there is a lot of spice to this clash.
The teams go into the quarter-final with very different moods - Aughawillan are worried about the fitness of key players like Noel Plunkett, Ciaran Gilheany, Fergal McTague and Morgan Quinn, a key quartet who each occupy a different line on the field. They are all likely to play next Sunday but there has to be some element of doubt about their fitness and that's not good for the reigning champions.
In their favour is their form of Pearce Dolan and Gary Plunkett while the veteran leadership of Barry Prior has been key. They might have been well below full strength but they are still tallying huge scores in their games even without some of their key forwards. And there is no team better at managing pressure in the closing minutes than the Willies, nobody who relishes it more and thrives on the pressure.
Mohill, on the other hand, seem only to be building momentum. The return of Keith Beirne and Alan McLoughlin in the last match against Drumreilly along with James Mitchell and even Irish sprint international Eanna Madden only increases the range of scoring options for a team that have averaged over 19 points a game while only conceding just over five points a game.
Those sort of statistics look scary but in the games where the opposition have put it up to them, they only scored 1-6 against Glencar/Manorhamilton who hit 1-20 while Drumreilly scored 3-12 against them which must be a worry when you are coming up against an Aughawillan team capable of running up big scores themselves.
Key players for Mohill are Oisin Madden, Shane Quinn and Domhnaill Flynn who are the the driving force for everything Mohill do along with Keith Keegan. Yet you still feel that they will need a lead against the champions if they are to prevail because if it is a close finish, you have to fancy the injury hit champions.
The last game of the weekend and the game sure to draw the biggest crowd - hard to get bigger than this. I went for Aughawillan at the start of the championship, I won't desert them now but they will need everything to go their way on Sunday
SMITH MONUMENTALS INTERMEDIATE FC QUARTER-FINALS
Annaduff v Bornacoola in Cloone 12 noon
There is never an easy game between these neighbours and while results might suggest that Annaduff are strong favourites for this one, Karl Foley's team will be wary of a Bornacoola team that incredibly had three draws out of five games in the group stages.
Annaduff started slowly and were lucky to draw the first day against Drumkeerin but interestingly, their tally of 2-8 was their lowest of the campaign so far and they have been regularly hitting the 20 point mark. Sean McNabola leads the line but you definitely feel that the entire attack is contributing far more than they did last year in the run to the Intermediate Final.
Defensively, the concession rates have varied from 10 to 12 points to 17 so that may be a worry for a team that has dominated their matches so far.
For the Bors, they've been hitting just over 14 points a game but they are conceding over 20 but most of that is accounted for a heavy loss to Kiltubrid and interestingly, they drawn with Eslin and Ballinaglera so they are not short of the ability to cause a shock this weekend.
Much of their hopes will depend on whether Damian Moran is available after he left the action at halftime against Ballinaglera last Sunday. Someone like Moran is a huge asset to have and Annaduff will have their work cut out to stop him although Conor Reynolds and David O'Dowd will fancy their chances.
The Bors will take the game to their neighbours but still you have to feel that Annaduff's scoring power is too great and should see them through.
Kiltubrid v Leitrim Gaels in Cloone 1.30
A couple of weeks ago, I'd have had this one down as a relatively straight forward win for Leitrim Gaels but after the last two rounds, Kiltubrid are coming into this game hot. A hefty beating of Bornacoola lifted Kiltubrid and they impressed me last weekend with their desire and intensity against Aughavas.
In a tight battle, it was Kiltubrid's intense workrate and sheer intensity that never gave Aughavas a real look at the goal. It will be harder to do that against Leitrim Gaels who have a far greater range of scoring threats and physical power but in a tight game, Kiltubrid will fancy their chances of an upset.
Shane Foley anchors the defence while Eoin Dolan, Keelan McKeon and Emmet Mahon are key to their attack. Slowly down or stopping any of those three will hurt Kiltubrid hugely while, given their spate of cards late on against Aughavas, Kiltubrid will have to be mindful of their discipline.
Leitrim Gaels have not been as convincing as you might think so far but then again, they were quiet in the group stages last year too. Aidan Flynn and David Bruen will set the tempo and upfront, the likes of Enda Moreton, Stephen Goldrick if fully fit and Eunan Treacy are able to run up big scores.
Colm and Liam Moreton give the Gaels a big physical presence and if they can hit their form, their experience of playing Division 1 football should stand to them in the long run. The Gaels to come through after a battle.
Ballinaglera v Carrigallen in Drumshanbo 12 noon
This could be the tightest game of the weekend and really is too close to call. I can see both teams winning but Carrigallen might just have an edge in scoring power but then Ballinaglera have been running up big totals too. In fact the north Leitrim men have actually averaged more a game than Carrigallen, hitting over 21 points a game to the just under 20 Carrigallen have registered.
Like we said, there is not much in it and defensively, Ballinaglera have conceded just five points less than Carrigallen. Ballinaglera dropped just three points in the campaign, a one point loss to Eslin and a draw with Bornacoola while Carrigallen lost to both Annaduff and Leitrim Gaels, not a bad sign there against two of the big teams and they were competitive in both games.
Even the league meetings between the teams doesn't offer many clues with Ballinaglera winning by a point back in April. Both teams are evenly matched, Ballinaglera may have a bit more physical power but Carrigallen get around the field with pace so there is a nice contrast.
The sides met two years ago in a brilliant quarter-final clash in Aughavas with Carrigallen recovering after a slow start to win 3-10 to 1-10. That was a tight and tough encounter and I expect no different here. Ballinaglera have the numbers in their favour but for some reason, I'm leaning towards Carrigallen. They get a hesitant vote - but only just.
Eslin v Drumkeerin in Drumshanbo 1.30
Nobody wise should ever take Drumkeerin for granted but player losses finally seem to be catching up with them and they struggled more this year to reach the Quarter-Finals than they have in some time. Their record of two wins, a draw and two losses is perfectly balanced but they haven't been shooting the lights out as they normally do.
The late return from injury of Cathal McCauley robbed them of momentum and a heavy loss to Leitrim Gaels in the last round, albeit it was a complete dead rubber, doesn't help their causes but Drumkeerin are fired up to avenge last year's Quarter-Final loss to the same opposition when Eslin transformed a game Drumkeerin has been dominating.
As the dog in the street will tell you, stopping Conor Beirne is key to stopping Eslin but that is far easier said and written than done. All the reports of Eslin's games record massive contributions from their full-forward when they win, it is reported that nobody can stop Beirne when he is on form.
The question for Eslin is can they do enough to lift some of the burden off Beirne as he simply can't do it all himself. Any help in the scoring stakes would make Eslin far tougher to beat. To be honest, I'd have Eslin just behind Annaduff and Leitrim Gaels in the favourites stakes and I expect them to come through here.
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