THE draw for the semi-finals of the Tullamore Court Hotel Senior Football Championship ensured that there would be a new look to the final this year.
After consecutive years of Clara and Rhode meeting in the decider, this time around they have been drawn together in the semi-final opening the door for either Gracefield or Edenderry to end their respective final droughts.
The fact that both Gracefield and Edenderry have reached the last four of the championship is staggering given their respective battles against the drop in recent years.
Since winning the Intermediate Championship in 2007, Edenderry have been at least in the relegation semi-final each year since.
Semi-finalists in 2008, Gracefield have themselves been down to the wire in the last two years when it came to the specter of relegation.
In the 2008 Relegation Play-Off, Edenderry overcame St Rynagh’s by 1-9 to 0-9. In 2009 Edenderry defeated Gracefield in the first game of the three way relegation play-off by 2-9 to 0-6. Both sides avoided the drop thanks to wins over Shannonbridge but Edenderry needed a replay to save their status.
Both were again threatened with relegation last year with Edenderry escaping at the semi-final stage with a win over St Brigid’s while Gracefield dodged the bullet in the relegation final also with a win over St Brigid’s.
At the end of last year’s campaign, the odds on both these sides rebounding to the extent where they are one game away for the county final would have been long.
However rather than both teams causing a shock by reaching this stage, it is more correct to say that both have finally stopped underachieving and have begun to live up to expectations.
The key to this game could well be the midfield battle where two talented partnerships will be battling to gain the upper hand and possibly lay the foundation for victory.
Niall Smith and Richie Dalton formed a formidable partnership for Offaly this year but this Sunday they will be going head to head in what should be a terrific individual battle.
They will be ably assisted by Sean Smith and Derek Kelly, two more players who have shone during the championship this year. It should be an even battle in the engine room but if one side gains control, it could change the course of the game.
While both sides have their share of wily veterans, the strength of both is in their young players.
David Hanlon, Sean Pender, Ciaran Hurley, Mark Young and Stuart Cullen are all key contributors for Edenderry while Ruairi Allen, John Knight and Peter Smart will be to the fore for Gracefield.
While Gracefield come into the game unbeaten, Edenderry have shown the better form in recent games particularly in their impressive win over St Rynagh’s in the quarter-final. It should be close and it would be a surprise if there was more than two points in it at the end. Gracefield probably have the edge in terms of scoring forwards but with their minors already in the county final, Edenderry are on a high and that confidence and momentum could carry them to their first final since 2001.
The other semi-final pits the finalists of the last two years and the clear pre-championship favourites against each other.
Rhode and Clara have won one each of the last two deciders and this game could easily be treated as the tie breaker.
Rhode’s record in the Senior Football Championship since 2004 is simply amazing and is comparable with that of Ferbane in the late 1980’s and Walsh Island in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
In eight seasons, Rhode have lost just two and drawn just one championship game while winning the remainder. The only teams to beat them were Shamrocks in a memorable semi-final in 2007 while Clara had a point to spare in the 2009 final. Rhode reversed that result in the 2010 final coming out on top by 3-9 to 2-11.
While not quite as impressive as Rhode’s, Clara’s have been consistent in reaching the knock-out stages in recent years while also making the final in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2010. They won two of those games and it is noteworthy that both wins came against Rhode.
By their own standards Clara underperformed in the group stages of the championship. They drew two games and lost one registering just two wins over a struggling Shamrocks and a Ballycumber team who finished fifth in the table. While still short of top form, they did show better form against Erin Rovers in the quarter-final and reports suggest that since then they have been very competitive in quality challenge matches.
Rhode this year seem to be taking things in their stride without extending themselves. When the pressure came on against Edenderry, they were able to respond and come away with the win.
Despite conceding three early goals against Walsh Island, they were able to dispatch their opponents with relative ease with Niall McNamee again stealing the show.
Both these sides know each other so well, it is unlikely there will be any surprises on either side in terms of tactics or personnel.
Rhode have shown the better form going into the game but Clara have no fear in facing the Village and are sure to be right up for this game.
The defending champions are the favourites to make an eighth final in nine years but Clara have the weapons and the know how to reach their third consecutive decider.