Durrow and Brian Duignan will fancy their chances of beating Gracefield.
THE Senior “B” Football Championship final between Gracefield and Durrow this Sunday could well provide one of the games of the year in Offaly.
It is an absolutely intriguing contest and the stakes are massive – they are high for Durrow but they are even bigger for Gracefield who have such a powerful need to be playing top flight football.
Durrow v Gracefield
Senior B Football Championship Final
O'Connor Park 1pm, Sunday
Referee: Eamon O Connor
Gracefield's relegation from the Senior Football Championship last year was not a surprise as it had been coming for a few years but as expected, they hit the ground running. History has shown that a club can have a prolonged spell down if the don't bounce back on the first occasion and Gracefield will be only too aware of the opportunity that lies in front of them.
Durrow have also had recent experience of top flight football, having won the Senior “B” a few years ago but they never really settled up there and quickly went back down. They have blown hot and cold at different stages in recent years but reached a big turning point last year when they were especially poor and football took a back seat with hurling in Ballinamere.
The commitment of players was well below expected levels and notwithstanding the hurling factor, the sight of just a handful of players at some training sessions was a sad and pitiful one. Durrow took remedial action this year, coming up with a surprise appointment in a flambouyant former Roscommon goalkeeper, Shane Curran. That was a serious appointment by Durrow and the message was clear to the players – we have gone to the effort of getting a high profile outside mnager, now do you want to play football or not.
Durrow had to do something and it has paid off handsomely as they have now reached the final and played some outstanding football on the way, albeit with a hairy game thrown into the mix when they were very fortunate to beat Ferbane.
Durrow have an outstanding generation of talented young players. Managing their dual commitments with Ballinamere is tricky for them, as it is for other clubs such as Ferbane-Belmont and, to a lesser extent Tullamore and Shamrocks – where football has a clear edge over hurling. Hurling is the first priority for a number of the talented Durrow footballers – Ross Ravenhill, Ciaran Burke and Brian Duignan have all been on the Offaly senior hurling panel and the small ball game is their priority. Ravenhill, however, has been playing very well at midfield for them while Burke and Duignan have been contributing well off the bench.
With Ballinamere hurlers bowing out in the group stages, it has been all eggs in a football basket and that has greatly benefitted Durrow. And while they have a lot of players with dual commitments, they also have some whose first priority is clearly football – Jack O'Brien and Kevin McDermott have played U-20 football with Offaly and both have the ability to go onto the senior squad in the coming years. They are two of Durrow's key players with O'Brien's ability to drive out of defence and McDermott's engine, energy and finishing ability crucial cogs in a well oiled machine.
Durrow's chances have nose dived with a red card to their key midfielder, Bobby O'Dea near half time of their semi-final win. O'Dea had been outstanding that day and unless he can get it rescinded in an appeal this week, he will be a huge loss to Durrow. Jack Fogarty and Micheal Mooney were injured that day with Mooney coming on late on and Durrow do have excellent replacements in both but their chances would be greatly enhanced with all hands on deck.
Gracefield have been favourites from the start but this is very close to a 50/50 game. Their success so far has been fashioned on the form of three outstanding players, Niall Smith, Jamie Evans and Jack Walsh. Smith is now their most experienced player – he has played a lot of football for Offaly and he has been playing very well at midfield.
Evans is one of the most exciting forwards in Offaly. He is a real speed merchant and his ability to run at defences, brush past tackles and bear down on goals has been instrumentual to Gracefield going so well. Evans missed a lot in their semi-final win over Ballycumber but that was very unusual for him. He is more than capable of shooting the lights out and curbing him is one of the big challenges facing Durrow.
Jack Walsh has also been in super form for them. He didn't start the semi-final win over Ballycumber and his importance was shown as Gracefield really struggled, going 0-5 to 0-1 behind after 23 minutes. It prompted an earlier than planned introduction for Walsh and he immediately transformed the game, scoring two points and setting up a goal. He should be able to start the final and Walsh will also have a huge bearing on what happens here. He can struggle for consistency at times and have the occasional off day but he is an excellent footballer, intelligent and well able to score.
Evans and Walsh are the single biggest obstacles between Durrow and victory, while the underdogs are not as reliant on individuals. Gracefield are far from a two man team, however, and Craig Dunne brings great physicality to midfield. He needs to retain his discipline but he showed in the semi-final how influential he can be while Stephen Flanagan is a very good scoring forward.
From the start, it was clear that Gracefield and Durrow were the two best teams in the championship with Tubber a very close third. Gracefield qualified out of group 1, drawing with Tubber and beating Erin Rovers and Shannonbridge. After that bad start against Ballycumber, they recovered to win by 3-9 to 0-11.
Durrow had good wins against Ballycumber and Walsh Island and then had their worse game in the final round against Ferbane, where they almost lost before winning by three points. That raised questions about them but they did produce a very good semi-final performance with a last gasp Kevin McDermott point giving them victory over Durrow, 2-9 to 0-11.
A very close exciting game is almost certain here and it should go down to the wire.
You can make a strong case for Durrow in this one and they have a great chance. There are doubts about their ability to perform on the big day but there have also been plenty of times when they have done the business. They have a very exciting young team with no obvious weaklink. Gracefield are perhaps more reliant on individuals and that is not an ideal situation. Of course those inviduals can do the business and lead you to victory but it can also go the opposite way. Jamie Evans and Jack Walsh have been truly outstanding for Gracefield this year and there is nothing to suggest that they won't produce again. They can lead Gracefield back to senior after a mighty fright.
Verdict – Gracefield.