CONNAUGHT champions they may be, but when it comes to All-Ireland success Castlebar Mitchels are still at base camp in terms of the mountain that remains ahead of them in their bid to lift the All-Ireland senior football title for the first year in the history of a club that was established in 1887, a year before their opponents tomorrow, Crossmaglen Rangers, writes John Melvin.
The final push for Mitchels to book a place in Croke Park on St. Patrick’s Day will take place at Breffni Park in Cavan tomorrow evening (Saturday, February 13, throw-in at 6.45 p.m.).
Where both Ardnaree and Hollymount-Carramore came up short in their bids to land a junior and intermediate club title respectively, the hope is that Castlebar will now take up the baton and lift the Andy Merrigan Cup for the first time in the history of the club.
If the vibes coming from the Mitchels camp are to be interpreted, this is a team that is fully focused, well prepared and ready to do battle with Crossmaglen Rangers in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The CV of the Armagh club makes for impressive reading. They have really raised the bar in terms of club football titles won - six All-Irelands, 11 Ulster titles, and I lost track of the number of county titles (close to 30).
But this is a young and ambitious Castlebar team who have blazed their own trail through Connaught, beating the reigning All-Ireland champions and retaining practically all of the team that came up short against St. Vincent’s of Dublin in 2014.
Maybe you need to lose one to win one, but Castlebar are certainly gearing up to give it their best shot and the belief is that they come well equipped and as good as the only two other Mayo teams to have lifted the Andy Merrigan Cup, Crossmolina (2001) and Ballina (2005).
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford was on that Crossmolina winning team and subsequently went on to manage Corofin to the title.
The fact that it was Castlebar who ended Rochford’s reign as Corofin manager when they beat the defending champions may be a good omen in itself, but I have a feeling Mitchels will be facing one of their biggest battles yet when they take on a Crossmaglen side who tend to play tough and uncompromising football and whose record at this level speaks volumes for just how dedicated and passionate they are about their football in south Armagh.
Teams like Ballina and Knockmore will testify as to just how tough Crossmaglen can be, Ballina in particular very unlucky not to have won that All-Ireland in 1999-2000. At least they atoned five years later when they came back to finally bring home the Andy Merrigan Cup.
What does it take to win an All-Ireland club title? I really wouldn’t know, but I sense that a few of the most fundamental components of any good club is to assemble a team who believe in their own destiny, have set their target and are willing to back up their ambitions by making the effort and the sacrifices necessary.
I believe Castlebar have such a bunch and they also have a bench, which is likely to be vital to see this one out. Castlebar are also team playing to a system, and it would seem Mitchels have found a system that suits their style of play.
In joint managers Declan Shaw and Declan O’Reilly they have a management that has been able to bring out the best of a group at a peak in terms of development and maturity, with players mostly in the 23- to 25-year-old bracket and a few older ones who, no doubt, will provide the experience when the pressure comes on when they face the Ulster champions.
Castlebar would appear to be worthy emissaries to send to complete a mission which probably started two years ago. Now the team looks more street-wise and, above all else, are a well-organised and highly motivated footballing side. I tip them to beat Crossmaglen.