Northern flavour to a unique Mayo SFC final
For Belmullet, county senior finals don't come around very often. The last one was all of 40 years ago, and there was only one prior to that, way back in the time of 'The Emergency', as it was known in Ireland.
They weren't successful in either 1981 or 1945 so the current group of Belmullet players have a chance to make history when they face Knockmore in this year's county final, which will be played in James Stephens Park, Ballina, tomorrow afternoon (Sunday), throwing in at 1.30 p.m.
A formidable opponent stand in the way. Knockmore won a first county title in 23 years when they captured the Paddy Moclair Cup in September 2020 and they proved that was no flash in the pan by reaching this year's decider again.
There was one hiccup along the way, however, in the form of a Group B game in Belmullet on a difficult day for football. Belmullet, using all their defensive knowhow, strangled the life out of the reigning champions en route to a 2-4 to 1-4 victory, a result that left Knockmore needing to get something out of their final group encounter against Charlestown.
That's when the champions sprung to life as they won at a canter, 3-15 to 2-10, to reignite their championship aspirations.
But there could be a psychological advantage for Belmullet going into the final having secured that victory on the peninsula. And they could be employing that other psychological trick too; that of proclaiming themselves underdogs.
“No-one gave us a chance, which suited us – the underdogs tag probably suits us and we'll probably go into the final as underdogs too,” said Belmullet goalkeeper Shane Nallen following their semi-final victory over Westport – a Westport team that was fancied by many, it must be admitted.
Backing up his team-mate, Ryan O'Donoghue said: “No-one gave us a chance (against Westport) and probably won't give us a chance in the final again, but this group of lads have come a long way since intermediate, since Damien took over.”
That Damien is, of course, manager Damien Mulligan – a man who knows a thing or two about winning county titles (and more) from his time as a player with Crossmolina Deel Rovers.
He was quick to praise his team following the semi-final victory, which took a 'huge, huge' effort by his charges against a 'fantastic' Westport team.
“It's a long, long time since 1981, when Belmullet were last in a county (senior) final. This is a huge moment for Belmullet GAA, a huge moment for these guys and their families,” said Mulligan after the Westport game.
“We'd like to prepare correctly for the county final. I know it's a long time since we've been in a final but we've got to prepare correctly to be in a position to win on the day.”
Perhaps the biggest worry for Knockmore is that Belmullet have little to lose. If, as they believe, no-one seriously gives them a chance of winning the final, then they can relax and go out to simply play the game to the best of their ability and impose themselves on proceedings without contemplating too much the final outcome.
It helps that they're having fun in the course of the run to the final. “At the moment we're just enjoying our football, putting no pressure on ourselves,” said O'Donoghue. “We're just enjoying football at the moment. We're enjoying training, we're having great craic, and we're seeing how far it's bringing us.”
Undoubtedly O'Donoghue is their star man, the one who converts frees, helps out around the middle when the team comes under pressure and is there to set up and score goals when the chance arises.
But it's not a one-man team and Belmullet are reaping the rewards of sterling work at underage level for a number of years and building on that intermediate title won back in 2018.
Even if they don't win the title this year – and I'm not writing off their chances for one second – I think they'll be at the business end of the senior race for a few years to come.
But Knockmore are wily campaigners. They'll have taken lessons from the defeat against Belmullet in the group stages and you can expect manager Ray Dempsey to have his own game plan perfected for the final.
Their plans for the reaching the final itself were almost scuppered by Garrymore in the semi-final as the south Mayo men put in a scorching first half against the champions.
It forced Knockmore to dig deep, not for the first time this year, and Dempsey was full of praise for his men after they turned things around in the second half to record a 2-11 to 0-11 victory.
“I have to give great credit to our lads; they never lost their focus and their discipline, in a sense of keeping playing, and it paid off in the end for us, but it was a huge battle,” he said.
Those battling qualities will need to be utilised again tomorrow, no doubt, but a supply of ball into the likes of Peter Naughton, Aidan Orme, Connell Dempsey and Darren McHale (if he's fit to play) could cause some problems to a Belmullet rearguard in which Eoin O'Donoghue has been hugely impressive.
Perhaps Kevin McLoughlin will once again be the star of the show, but he won't have it all his own way as the likes of Evan Ivers and Daithi Cosgrove will certainly make life difficult for the county star.
McLoughlin himself admitted they didn't play particularly well against Garrymore – perhaps they weren't allowed to – but said they did work very hard, and that brought its just rewards in the end, two second-half goals swinging the tie decidedly in their favour.
It's unusual in itself to be left with two teams from the one group in the county final, but even more unusual is that the venue – James Stephens Park – is like a home away from home for Belmullet at this stage as their final group game, quarterfinal and semi-final were all played there. Supporters will have their favourite parking spot selected at this stage.
It's probably not that much of an advantage, however, given that for Knockmore it's only a jaunt of a few kilometres, and it's on the 'right' side of town for them as well.
What both sides will appreciate is a good surface but for that we are in the lap of the gods at this time of year, though of course the groundsmen do deserve credit and I'm sure the pitch will be in great condition. If the sod is a tad heavy it may just suit Belmullet, who will yield ground to Knockmore but cut off the supply lines into the attack. It's not likely to be a high-scoring game but it should be tense and exciting, with the outcome uncertain until late in the day.
Can Belmullet win it? They can, but I expect Knockmore might be a little too savvy having been through this experience before. Last year they were slight underdogs against Breaffy but belied that tag to storm home with a convincing final quarter. This year they're favourites and it'll be interesting to see how they cope with that. It's going to take a huge effort for Knockmore to put back-to-back titles together but there should just about get over the line on Sunday, emulating the teams of 1983/84 and 1996/97 in the process.