Mark Tully on the ball for St Mary's Granard in getting the better of St Brigid's Killashee opponents Shane and Darren Cosgrove in the Senior Football Championship first round game. Pic: Syl Healy
Generally regarded as one of the most competitive club championships in the country and which always attracts a lot of interest around the county and surrounding areas, the battle for the Connolly Cup has kicked-off with the main contenders preparing to enter the arena.
The first round games in the ‘lesser’ Group 3 were played last weekend, resulting in a win for St Mary’s while the Fr Manning Gaels and Ballymahon clash finished in a draw. All bar St Brigid’s Killashee (beaten by Granard) will be in action in a festival of football over this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Who will be crowned the senior kings this year? The general opinion is that the title holders Mullinalaghta St Columba’s will be very difficult to dethrone and that the 2015 champions Killoe will pose the biggest threat, particularly with former Roscommon manager Fergal O’Donnell now in charge of Emmet Og.
Killoe, of course, were attempting to complete a three-in-a-row in 2016 but their recent dominance of the county senior football championship was halted by a highly charged Mullinalaghta team at the semi-final stage.
St Columba’s gained sweet revenge for the bitter disappointment of the defeat against Emmet Og in the 2014 title decider and who also lost to the same opposition in a much closer encounter when the clubs clashed again in the 2015 quarter-final.
Many shrewd observers felt that Mullinalaghta should have emerged victorious two years ago as they continued to knock on the championship door and it was no great surprise when this talented bunch of players finally made the breakthrough last season.
There were scenes of great joy as the small club situated on the Longford and Cavan border won the county senior title for the first time in 66 years, beating neighbouring rivals Abbeylara in the final, and St Columba’s are hungry for some more success under the guidance of their influential manager Mickey Graham.
Cavan Gaels clubman Graham guided Mullinalaghta to the promised land in 2016 and they will be extremely hard beaten in the fierce desire to retain the Connolly Cup, judging by their impressive league form this season.
St Columba’s are unbeaten after seven games (six wins and a draw) in leading the way at the top of the Division 1 table and Included in the list of league results is a most emphatic win over Killoe. But the championship is a completely different ball game with the sides set to clash again in Round 3 of the group stage.
Before that eagerly awaited re-match, St Columba’s and Emmet Og will take on Longford Slashers and Dromard in the most difficult of the three groups and who knows what might happen in those games such is the unpredictable nature of the league stage of the championship.
One of those four clubs will end up missing out on a place in the quarter-finals and it will probably all boil down to the remaining group fixture between Slashers and Dromard.
Slashers, with Eugene McCormack in his second season as manager, have been going through a transition period with the introduction of a number of young players.
Thus the greater experience of the Dromard team and their stronger attack may well stand to them in the quest to qualify for the last eight with Sean Hagan back in charge again.
You cannot argue with the quality that currently exists on both the St Columba’s and Emmet Og teams, clearly reflected in the fact that eight of their players (four apiece) featured for Longford in the recent All-Ireland qualifier defeat against Donegal.
Mullinalaghta men John Keegan, Donal McElligott and the McGivney brothers James and David teamed up with Killoe lads Michael Quinn, Padraig McCormack, Daniel Mimnagh and Larry Moran as the action unfolded in Ballybofey with injury ruling out another Emmet Og player Sean McCormack.
While the rest of the clubs in the county are playing catch up in the pecking order, it would be foolish to write off the chances of Abbeylara making a bold bid to win this year’s championship with the scoring machine that is Robbie Smyth on their team along with a number of promising young players.
Danny Brady from Mullahoran is the new Abbeylara manager while Collie Clarke and former Cavan All-Star Dermot McCabe will be hoping to guide Clonguish to an extended run in the championship which is a strong possibility considering their good blend of youth and experience.
Recent arch rivals Abbeylara and Clonguish will clash again in Group 2 and are confidently expected to reach the quarter-finals and will be up against Mostrim and Carrickedmond in their other fixtures in the round-robin section of the championship.
Edgeworthstown, with one of their own Jack Lynn still the man in charge, will have to conquer Carrickedmond to qualify for the knock-out stages and look capable of doing that but certainly cannot afford to take anything for granted.
Carrickedmond are now coached by Maurice O’Connor, who guided his native club Abbeylara to the 2015 and 2016 county senior finals, and he will be targeting the match against Mostrim as their best chance to make further progress.
Group 3, comprising five teams and thus the need for a couple of extra rounds, is already under way and the strongest outfit here are unquestionably Colmcille who will be going all out to make amends for a very poor championship campaign last year.
Having said that, they were pitted against Abbeylara, Dromard and the eventual county champions Mullinalaghta in a very difficult group as they failed to qualify for the quarter-finals.
Colmcille are now on the road to redemption, under the driving force of their new manager Stephen Coy (Killoe), and are strongly fancied to advance from the easiest of the groups with games against Fr Manning Gaels, St Mary’s Granard, Ballymahon and St Brigid’s Killashee.
Expected to join them in the last eight will be Granard, who have become very competitive in the championship since Niall Sheridan took over as manager and put it up to Killoe, Clonguish and Slashers in a much tougher group last year.
Ballymahon are going extremely well in Division 2 of the league this season, winning all seven games to consolidate their place at the top of the table with former Ardagh and Longford midfielder Liam Keenan the new man in charge, but are now facing stronger opposition.
Fr Manning Gaels, back operating in Division 1 of the league, are no longer the force they used to be but will give it their best shot with Gowna clubman Gary Donohoe in his second season as the manager of the Drumlish/Ballinamuck outfit.
Last but not least are the 2016 Intermediate title winners St Brigid’s Killashee, who wanted to stay put in the second tier championship this year, but the powers that be prevented that from happening according to the rules in place.
Ray Curley, who guided St Brigid’s to Hennessy Cup glory last season, is working with a mix of experience and youth who will do their best against all the odds.
In the final analysis of the overall senior championship picture, it is hard to look beyond Mullinalaghta (fancied by many to retain the Connolly Cup) and Killoe as the eventual winners of the 2017 senior title.
And depending on the draw they could end up contesting the county final on Sunday 8 October with St Columba's the best bet.