The scale of the challenge facing Gallen Community School this Saturday in Croke Park was made very clear by the devastating manner in which Holy Trinity College of Cookstown put Clonakilty Community College to the sword in Newbridge last Saturday. The Ulster champions, keen to get a second shot at Gallen after last year’s enthralling All Ireland semi final at Ballyconnell in Cavan, surged out into a 2-12 to 1-2 lead at St Conleth’s Park and only allowed the Cork school tack on a few scores in the latter stages of the game.
Indeed solid defence has been a strong feature of the Cookstown team so far this year and it will be the battle between the stellar Gallen attack and the frugal Cookstown defence that is most likely to determine the winner of this Saturday’s clash.
If Brian Grehan is declared fit after his recent injury, Gallen will most likely start with four of last year’s forward line in their attack in Croke Park (indeed it would be five if Darragh Keenaghan was not absent due to a knee injury while the sixth, Ryan Delaney, will start in the half back line), while four of the Cookstown backline from Saturday’s clash are also returning from the starting team in 2011. All four midfielders will also be returning, while the Gallen backline and the Cookstown attack have undergone more extensive changes.
Neither side comes into this game having been severely tested so far either. Gallen endured some nervous moments in the first half of their games against Ballymahon and Carnew and looked under pressure when Davitts mounted a comeback early in the second half of the All Ireland semi final, but they always came through with flying colours by the end. Cookstown had a tough battle with Ballybay of Monaghan in their Ulster semi final but still came through to win by six points despite losing a man to a red card. Indeed that was the only game so far that any team finished within two goals of either of these sides.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing battles will be that between Darragh Corbett and John Loughran at the centre of the Cookstown attack. Corbett has been central to Gallen’s success this year and last, displaying incredible power and poise at the pivotal defensive position, while John Loughran, a Tyrone minor panellist from 2011 but overage this year, has been a driving force behind his side and looks to run straight at the opposition goals at every opportunity from the centre forward position.
Gallen full back James Nally will already have his hands full with James McGahan, Cookstown’s leading scorer, so the Ferbane school cannot afford to have Loughran bearing down on goal regularly and increasing the pressure on Nally.
When these sides met last year, it was without doubt Gallen’s finest performance of the season and it needed to be, as they still only had two points to spare by the end. Conor Lowry and Ciarán Cahill were the star performers on that particular occasion and Cahill will again be crucial as he and his midfield partner, Offaly under-21 panellist Leon Fox, attempt to secure the lion’s share of possession for their team.
Up front Gallen’s forwards have proved that they can score freely with 10-48 scored in their four games so far, but they did struggle to collect breaking ball against Davitt College and will need to do better in that regard as it can be very difficult to win turnovers at Croke Park.
The wide open spaces of the Dublin arena mean that players have to defend one on one a lot more and bottling up opponents can be difficult. Thus winning contested possession becomes vital.
While it’s hardly Gallen’s fault that they haven’t met a high calibre opponent so far, it’s still a concern for Fran Mulhall and his management team as they prepare to travel down the M6.
Gallen have passed all their tests with flying colours, but Saturday’s fixture represents a whole new level of competition, up against a Cookstown side that have five Tyrone minor panellists and two more players that were minor panellists in 2011 but are overage this year.
Croke Park experience and a winning mentality will be a help, but the Ferbane school will need to play every card in their hand if they are to retain their All Ireland title this week.