Friday, October 04, 2019

WEATHER permitting, Saturday afternoon in St Conleths Park promises to be an occasion not to be missed.

12 teams have been eliminated from the Joe Mallon Renault Senior Football Championship and without any disrespect to any of those clubs, the cream has risen to the top and we are now left with the four best teams in the county battling it out to see who will lift the Dermot Bourke Cup on 20 October.

These aren’t just the four best teams this season but we wrote here before the quarter-finals about how they have become pretty much unbeatable for the rest of the teams in the Championship since 2013.

However, even within that top four there is a hierarchy and the difference in the semi-final record for the Newbridge duo – Moorefield and Sarsfields – and Celbridge and Athy is striking.

First of all, before discussing their record it’s important to note that Athy and Celbridge have been incredibly consistent over the last decade to constantly reach the latter stages of the Championship but the facts state that once they get into the last four, their results haven’t been as good as they would like.

Saturday will be Athy’s ninth semi-final in the last ten years, a remarkable run which is better than their three rivals, but in those previous eight games they have only won three. Those wins were against St Laurences, Johnstownbridge and Celbridge but during that period they they have lost semi-finals to Moorefield (2), Sarsfields (2) and Carbury.

While Celbridge have been almost as consistent as Athy in reaching the last four, their record once they get there is even worse. This year is their eighth semi-final since their title win of 2008 but they have won just one of their previous seven, that against Johnstownbridge in 2017.

The flipside of that is the superb semi-final records of Sarsfields and Moorefield.

Sarsfields have won 11 of their 13 semi-finals this century and have won their last nine semi-finals going back to 2004 – when they lost to eventual champions Allenwood.

Moorefield are similar, they have won their last seven semi-finals and have won 10 out of their 12 semi-finals this century, their only two defeats against their rivals Sarsfields.

Those records have helped ingrain a belief in the Newbridge clubs that makes they very hard to beat but of course, Celbridge and Athy are not without their chances in their year’s last four.

Paul Curran has helped add a steeliness to Celbridge this year and they have been extremely impressive in reaching the semi-finals. Fergal Conway has again been one of the best players in this year’s Championship and Sarsfields will have to find a way to nullify his impact on the game. One of Celbridge’s big strengths is the pace and directness of their running from deep and around the middle third. Kevin Flynn’s return to fitness has been a massive boost while Tony Archbold has really delivered on his potential this year and is having a fine season. On the inside line, David Hughes might not have the pace of that pair but he is a very consistent scorer and it will be intriguing to see how Paddy Brophy goes in this game. In recent seasons for club and county Brophy has been utilised around the middle third of the field and has found it harder to make a real impact on the game. Curran has elected to put Brophy back in the position where he originally made his name and back at full forward he has looked much more like his old self in this Championship.

Fergal Conway is a hugely important player for Celbridge
Photo: Sean Brilly

Sarsfields’ route to the last four has been equally as impressive. They lost a tight battle to Athy in the opening round but their form since the Championship resumed in August has been top class. They beat their rivals Moorefield and then, as expected, cruised through the remainder of the group and although Eadestown did have their moments in their quarter-final, Sarsfields had too much in the end.

Whether by choice or necessity, Davy Burke has looked to youth this season and some of the fine young talent in the club have come of age this year. Shane Doyle was excellent off the bench in the quarter-final win over Eadestown while Darragh Ryan and Cian Costigan continue to improve with each passing game. The aforementioned Conway will pose them problems so whichever midfield pairing Burke goes with will have to closely monitor him. Sarsfields have been boosted by the return of Barry Coffey to training since their quarter-final and they will have their fingers crossed that Ben McCormack can have a big impact on this game. He has had to be used carefully since injuring a hamstring in Kildare’s last game of the season against Tyrone but he can be a matchwinner if fully fit, likewise Ray Cahill.

Sarsfields’ Ray Cahill holds off Celbridge’s David Byrne during the club’s Championship meeting in the 2018 group stages
Photo: Sean Brilly

On the other side of the draw, you could say that Athy have shown the best form of any side in this year’s Championship. They beat Sarsfields in the first round, won all three of their group games and then saw off a Johnstownbridge side in the quarter-final who were turning in their best display of the year. Athy scored 21 points during that game, in miserable weather conditions, and they will again look to their attack to lead them to victory. Niall Kelly has looked back to his best in recent games, Liam McGovern and James Eaton have been consistent as ever and Cian Reynolds and Danny O’Keefe have managed a better run of games this season than for many a year. In midfield, Vinnie Walsh has the kind of selection problems that every manager dreams of. Kevin Feely has been carrying a knock and has minded through the group stages but the three week break between games will do him the world of good and Walsh must decide then if Paschal Connell, Mick Foley or David McGovern will partner him. Feely also caused Moorefield a lot of problems when deployed at full forward during last year’s final and that is an option for Walsh too. Cathal McCarron and the return of James Roycroft in goal have helped steady things at the back and it really is hard to pick a weakness in their team. If they can get past Moorefield then Athy are likely to start the final as final as favourites no matter who comes through on other side.

Former Tyrone star Cathal McCarron has helped shore up the Athy defence
Photo: Sean Brilly

But getting over three in a row chasing Moorefield is no easy task – even if their form has been a bit more sketchy than the other three remaining teams. They were beaten by Sarsfields in the group stages and were flattered by the eight point winning margin over Two Mile House, while two late goals put a gloss on the win over Eadestown. Then, they were given the fright of their lives by Clane in the quarter-final play off. At seven points down in the first half, Moorefield genuinely looked in danger of bowing out of the competition but it was a moment of weakness that showed their greatest strength. Even when on their knees, it’s hard to land a blow to completely knock them out. There are times when other teams appear slicker in attack, stronger in defence but Moorefield know how to do the most important thing better than anybody else – and that is win football matches. There is also the feeling that Moorefield were never targetting to be at their best in August or September. Nobody in Moorefield would ever be so cocky to look past their next game or get too far ahead of themselves but there is the feeling that they have been looking at the long game and after getting a taste of Leinster success in 2017 are hoping to have a season beyond the Kildare Championship. It would be no surprise to see them turn in their best display of the season against Athy. Eanna O’Connor is another player who has been carrying an injury through the Championship so far this season and he will be a key figure for Moorefield if they can get him onto the pitch.

Moorefield supporters will be hoping that Eanna O’Connor is fully fit for the semi-final against Athy
Photo: ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

So there, you have it. Two cracking games featuring the best of Kildare, and no doubt new Kildare manager Jack O’Connor will paying close attention. Who you think will come through the semi-finals to reach this year’s final depends on your point of view. Going on this season’s form, it could easily be a Celbridge v Athy final but history suggests an eighth Newbridge derby since 2001 on finals day. All in all, Saturday is sure to be a day not to be missed at St Conleths Park.

Saturday 5 October

Sarsfields v Celbridge (2pm).

Moorefield v Athy (3.45pm).

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