Croke Park final is one step away for Cullyhanna

By Shaun Casey

IF the Ulster Club Championship is a plunge into the unknown, then the All-Ireland series truly is a case of wandering in the dark. Especially at Intermediate level, where sides are quite often going on the adventure for the first time.

It’s fine for your Glens, Kilcoos and Scotstowns who compete in the provincial series pretty much every single year, but for a club like Cullyhanna, every move forward is a step into new territory.

They’ve dealt with it pretty well up to this point, it must be said.

Their championship record in 2023 reads nine wins from nine outings and on Saturday evening, the St Patrick’s men are hoping to make it a perfect ten.

That was 2023 however, now all the focus is on 2024 and completing a new challenge to kick off the New Year in style.

If Cullyhanna can pick up their tenth win of the championship campaign, then it’s on to the bright lights of Croke Park for an All-Ireland final.

Their minds will surely begin to stray down that path as the days dwindle into hours and Saturday’s showdown with Kildare champs Allenwood creeps closer and closer. But before Croke Park becomes a reality, they have to win the semi-final first.

Kildare currently top the roll of honour at Intermediate level in Leinster. They’ve gathered up five provincial titles since 2006, with Allenwood’s recent victory over Scoil Ui Chonaill of Dublin rising the Lilywhite County to the top.

Allenwood, led by Kildare legend Johnny Doyle, who at the ripe old age of 45 is still conducting the orchestra from midfield, scored heavily in all three of their Leinster Championship encounters.

They amassed an eye-watering tally of 7-46 in their victories over St Malachy’s of Westmeath (which they won after extra-time), Ballylinan of Laois and Dublin’s Scoil Ui Chonaill, while conceding 5-27 in the same three fixtures.

Cullyhanna’s inability to deal with the kicking game of Ballyhaise in the Ulster final will offer some food for thought in the Allenwood changing room, but racking up a big score against Stephen Reel’s men is easier said than done.

Their defensive record was outstanding in the Ulster Championship. Although the Cavan men caused Cullyhanna untold problems at the back, they still only amounted 12 points. In all, Cullyhanna have conceded 28 points, and their goal has yet to be breached.

Ballyhaise came closest to raising a green flag but a fantastic first half save from Cullyhanna netminder James Carragher kept his clean sheet intact and in truth, kept his side in contention when they were up against it.

Cullyhanna are the favourites this weekend and when you ponder through their team sheet, it’s no wonder that they are so hotly fancied. Very few intermediate clubs can call on the inter-county quality and experience that Cullyhanna have.

In Aidan Nugent, Ross McQuillan and Jason Duffy, the St Patrick’s club have three players that featured in Armagh’s run to their first Ulster final in 15 years and the last eight of the All-Ireland series.

Both games were ultimately decided via penalty kicks, with Derry and Monaghan coming out on top respectively, but that experience will surely stand to the Cullyhanna trio, who have been key to their success thus far.

Defenders Sean Conlon and Mickey Murray have both worn the orange and white shirt while Sean Óg Irwin has been a member of Kieran McGeeney’s panel in the past, as has the Cullyhanna captain Pearse Casey.

Tony Donnelly lined out for New York in the Connacht Championship against Leitrim back in 2018 while centre half-forward Shea Hoey was player of the match when Cullyhanna overcame St Paul’s in the Armagh final.

Of course, Armagh coach Ciaran McKeever is also part of Reel’s management team, as is ex-Armagh player Malachy Mackin. Both men won an u-21 All-Ireland with the Orchard County in 2004 and can offer plenty of advice in terms of big game experience.

The lesser lights such as Caolan Reavey really stood up to be counted in the Ulster final, nailing 1-2 to pick up the player of the match gong and earn an important turnover that led to the final, game-winning point.

Reel’s men have plenty of standout names on paper and their Ulster final victory was perhaps more impressive for the fact that top talisman Nugent was held scoreless.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice, and he’ll be keener than ever to make an impression this weekend.

If Nugent hits form and Cullyhanna continue their mean defensive record, then they should continue on their historic adventure and look forward to a Croke Park date.

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