NEW territory will be chartered by Ardnaree Sarsfields tomorrow (Sunday) as they carry the Mayo and Connaught flags into battle with them for the first time when they take on Monaghan and Ulster champions Rockcorry in the All-Ireland junior football championship semi-final at 2 p.m. in Carrick-on-Shannon, writes John Melvin.
Having blazed a trail last year during a campaign which saw them score an incredible 20-98 to win their fourth ever county junior title, the question facing the Moysiders going into the Connaught championship was whether they were operating in a different league, if not on a different planet, than their opponents, or were the kind of scores they were chalking up more a reflection on the poor quality of the opposition in Mayo?
While they had only one game to earn a crack at winning their first ever Connaught title after a walkover in the semi-final from Aughavas, the champions of Leitrim, it was clear from their 1-11 to 1-7 win over a tough Clifden side in the Connaught final that this was an exceptionally talented bunch and, on their day, no team could have lived with them, Ballintubber, Lahardane, Charlestown, Ardagh and Killala falling like skittles as Ardnaree marched through Mayo to take the title.
The fact that most of them had stayed together having suffered defeats in the Mayo finals of 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 was also an indication of the resolve of a team whose persistence was finally rewarded last year when they bridged a gap of 44 years since they last won the Mayo title.
Defeat after defeat didn’t blunt the ambitions of a team who were learning all the time and, in the end, maturity brought its rewards with last year’s success.
There is a strong belief, and plenty of evidence to support it, that there is more to come. Ardnaree are a club on the up. Having produced such famous players as the late John Forde, Fr. Peter Quinn, Johnny Culkin, P.J. Gilmartin and the living legend, ‘Jinkin’ Joe Corcoran, all of whom distinguished themselves for Mayo, how does the team of today compare?
Quite well, it would seem, as this is a team that plays football, and good football at that, under a good coaching structure installed by manager Declan O’Dea.
However, they will be up against a Monaghan side who also bring strong credentials to this semi-final having blown away the champions of Derry, St. Mary’s Faughanvale (3-10 to 0-9), in the Ulster final.
If it is going to be a shootout, then Ardnaree have the armoury in that attack, but it is unlikely we will see big scores on a day when defences may have to step up to the mark. In that department Ardnaree are well equipped, with Conor Naylor one of the standout defenders throughout their campaign, while Pat Lacken at centre-back likes to push forward and can score, and he is flanked by two reliable defenders in Shane Timlin and Michael McCormack, while full-back Ian Clarke and corner-back Conor Cawley played their part in keeping Ardnaree’s goal concession to just three in the seven wins that have brough them into this semi-final, goalkeeper Blaine Ginty a proven shot-stopper.
Stephen Tighe and Martin Rafter have provided the platform for a lot of those 20 goals and 98 points, and when it comes to hitting the etarget, team captain Eoin McCormack, Ronan Doherty and Chris Walsh have been lethal in the full-forward line, while the huge workrate of Noelie Beattie epitomises the sprit of this Ardnaree side. Rory Clarke and Cathal Noone, along with a strong bench, give the Mayo lads every reason to believe they can take that giant step into history and make their first All-Ireland final.
But a game of this stature comes with a health warning. Monaghan play tough football at county level and that is likely to permeate down to club level. Their tackling in the Ulster final was one of the reasons why they won so much ball and forced so many turnovers, and, similar to Ardnaree, they can score goals.
Yet Ardnaree, from what we have seen, and with their style of play, look well equipped to deliver the goods if they can cope with the pressure of what is a big game.