Christy O'Connor: Naomh Conaill and Naas seek landmarks, but Waterford clubs lack hope

They may have only played two last-four clashes but that is still irrelevant considering how hard Donegal teams have found it to even get there – never mind win them.
Christy O'Connor: Naomh Conaill and Naas seek landmarks, but Waterford clubs lack hope

SEEKING LANDMARK WIN: Naomh Conaill's Ultan Doherty celebrates their win with Eunan Doherty. Pic: ©INPHO/John McVitty

Can Naomh Conaill become the first Donegal club to reach three Ulster senior finals?

When Naomh Conaill somehow rescued their Ulster quarter-final against Gowna with the last play two weeks ago – with a last-ditch goal from Kevin McGettigan – the Donegal outfit certainly didn’t feel like it was rough justice on the opposition. They know that pain too well.

Almost 12 months to the day last year, Naomh Conaill looked to have won the game against Cargin until late interventions from the Antrim champions bailed them out – twice. With the last act of normal time, Kevin McShane got a touch to guide the ball to the net to take the match to extra-time. At the end of the 80 minutes, McShane landed an audacious score to take the match to penalties, which Cargin won.

Cargin were subsequently beaten by Glen in the Ulster semi-final, where is where Naomh Conaill now find themselves – facing the reigning Ulster champions. The Derry side are favourites but they would do well to recognise one key statistic in Naomh Conaill’s favour – they have a 100% record in Ulster semi-finals.

They may have only played two last-four clashes but that is still irrelevant considering how hard Donegal teams have found it to even get there – never mind win them. In the history of the Ulster club championship, only one team has previously reached two Ulster finals. St Joseph’s were hammered in the 1973 final by Clan na Gael before returning to beat Castleblayney Faughs in the final two years later.

St Joseph’s and Gaoth Dobhair are the only Donegal clubs to win Ulster titles but Naomh Conaill went close to joining that group on two occasions; in 2010, they lost the final to Crossmaglen by four points, before being edged out by Kilcoo by two points in the 2019 decider.

A win against Glen on Saturday would see Naomh Conaill become the first Donegal club to reach three provincial finals. They still have to win an Ulster title, but they will be only focussed on getting there first. And the Glenties side have a good track record in doing so.

Can Naas do something special?

Despite the ongoing dual debate, and how hard it is for dual club to be successful, the last two years have been a golden period for club doubles; there were four club doubles around the country in 2021, and three in 2022. This year though, there was only one – Naas, in Kildare. Again. It was their third year in succession to win the double.

After winning the All-Ireland Intermediate hurling title (in February 2022) and reaching the 2021 Leinster football final (played in January 2022), Naas had a rattle at both Leinster senior competitions at the end of last year; they lost the football quarter-final to Kilmacud before going down to Ballyhale Shamrocks in the hurling semi-final.

Kilmacud though, almost took it to another level again when retaining the Leinster football title, and almost winning the hurling final, losing to Ballyhale in agonising circumstances. No club had ever won the double in Leinster in the same season.

Portlaoise almost pulled it off in 1987 when beating Parnell’s from Dublin in the football final (after a replay) but losing the hurling final to Rathnure in late agonising circumstances. Slaughtneil have never won an All-Ireland but they are unique in that they are the only club to have won the provincial double on two occasions – and in successive seasons mind, in 2016 and 2017. The only other club to win a provincial double in the same season is St Finbarr’s, who went on to reach All-Ireland hurling and football finals in the same season in 1981, losing the hurling final to Ballyhale before going on to defeat Walterstown from Meath in the football final.

An All-Ireland club double in the same season would have been incredible but a Leinster double would have been just as unique for Kilmacud last year considering both matches were played on the same day. The matches were able to go ahead as part of a double-header because Crokes only had one dual player involved - Brian Sheehy.

Having already qualified for the football final (against Kilmacud – again), Naas are now trying to reach both provincial finals in the same season. Yet with three dual players involved - James Burke, Brian Byrne and Daire Guerin – the Leinster Council will not be able to host both finals as a double-header next weekend if Naas manage to beat Na Fianna in Saturday’s semi-final. If they do, the football final will be pushed back to December 9th.

It's a problem Naas would love to have.

Waterford club football sides not as threatening as before

The lows have always been so consistently low for Waterford football that searching for any diamond days requires deep excavation. The Waterford seniors did beat Wexford in 2018, a first qualifier win since 2011. Any win is a big win for Waterford but when was the last real marquee victory – against a top 10-12 county - for a Waterford football team? If the McGrath Cup counts, not as long ago as you’d expect – 2015.

That semi-final in Clashmore was their first win against Cork in a competitive match since a league win back in 1957, the year that Waterford also famously beat Kerry in the Munster championship, in Dungarvan, by one point.

On that famous January day eight years ago, only 337 spectators were there to witness Waterford sacking Cork. Waterford subsequently went on to beat UCC in the final to secure their second McGrath Cup, and first since 1981. Although Cork had an experimental team, nobody still expected it to happen - because Cork teams never expect to lose to Waterford.

The club championship though, is a different arena, especially in the context of hardened experience. When The Nire went to Clonakilty to take on Carbery Rangers in the 2016 Munster semi-final, The Nire were fancied by many to get the job done.

The Nire had been in the Munster final two years earlier, which they’d narrowly lost to Austin Stacks. Carbery Rangers meanwhile had just secured a maiden Cork title and were playing in Munster for the first time. They had already beaten Monaleen by ten points in the provincial quarter-final but The Nire was always going to be a whole different challenge.

Six points down with 20 minutes remaining, The Nire stormed back to take the match to extra-time, where they powered on to win by five points. The Nire went into that final against Dr Crokes full of confidence, but Crokes annihilated them.

That was the day much of the positive mood music stopped for Waterford’s club football teams. A year later, due to Waterford’s involvement in the All-Ireland hurling final, Waterford didn’t have a representative in the Munster club championship because they hadn’t finished their football championship.

Since that victory against Carbery Rangers, Waterford’s clubs have won just one game in Munster in the meantime; in 2018, The Nire beat Adare in the quarter-final, but St Joseph’s Miltown-Malbay beat them by eight points in the semi-final.

The days of rattling – and beating – the bigger guns in the province looked over. Four years earlier, The Nire took down a Cratloe team which had almost beaten Crokes in the previous year’s final. In that 2014 final against Stacks, The Nire led by six points inside 10 minutes before Stacks were reduced to 14 men shortly afterwards. It was there for them in the second half but The Nire kicked eight wides and scored just once. Agony.

Not every year, but Waterford sides were invariably dangerous in Munster. In 2012, Stradbally ran Castlehaven to one point in Clonakilty. In 2007, Ballinacourty beat Kerry’s Kilcummin in the semi-final before running Nemo Rangers to three points in the final. The concession of a soft goal sundered The Nire’s chances of beating Crokes in the 2006 Munster final, which they lost by three points.

The closest a Waterford club ever came to winning a first provincial title was in 2004. After defeating Loughmore-Castleiney and Bishopstown, Stradbally drew with Kilmurry-Ibrickane before losing the replay by one point.

It's hard to call any period a golden one when a team didn’t win anything. But, in the modern context of where Waterford football currently finds itself, reaching five Munster club finals in 13 seasons (between 2004-’16) certainly can be termed a silver era. Especially when, in the previous 40 years, between 1964-2003, Waterford clubs only reached three Munster finals.

In their last three attempts, Waterford clubs have failed to win a game in Munster. The Nire were hammered by Éire Óg Ennis by 15 points last year but have Waterford clubs been as far away as it seems either? Rathgormack were only beaten by Miltown-Malbay by two points in 2019. When The Nire lost to Newcastlewest in 2021 by two points, they were missing five players due to Covid-19, three of which were starters.

When Rathgormack face off against Castlehaven on Sunday, they will be missing Michael Curry to suspension and Conor Murray, who has emigrated to New Zealand, both of whom are huge losses. And even more so when the record of Waterford clubs, and their ability to shock the big guns, is nowhere near as threatening as it once was.

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