By Michael McMullan
IT was irrelevant who Magherafelt got in the Derry SFC semi-final draw insists Brian McGuckin, and he expects a “huge battle” with Newbridge on Saturday (Owenbeg, 5.45pm).
McGuckin and Damian Barton are in their second year in charge of Magherafelt with Kilcoo’s All-Ireland winning coach Richard Thornton coming on board this season.
The sides finished level when the teams met in the final game of the group stages with Magherafelt already sure of top spot.
“I watched the game last night,” McGuckin said minutes after Sunday’s win over Ballinascreen at Owenbeg.
“It didn’t matter who we got in the semi-final as there were three very strong teams left along with ourselves.
“We played Newbridge last week and the game ended a draw so that gives you an indication there is very little, if anything, between the two teams.
“It is going to be a huge battle for both teams but a massive prize for the winners.”
Magherafelt needed a 55th-minute winner from Niall Higgins to see off a Ballinascreen team who will have regrets after Sunday’s game.
It took until half time before Magherafelt were level through Conall Heron’s points. Ballinascreen nosed ahead before a Rossa resurgence saw them lead for the first time in the 43rd minute after Shane Heavron put them in front.
“’Ozzie’s ‘(Niall Higgins) point was massive and we knew coming here that it was going to be a battle,” McGuckin said.
“Defensively, they had been the best team in that championship, they hadn’t been conceding any more than 10 scores a game and we, obviously, only scored 0-11 today.”
The feeling in the Magherafelt camp centred on their impact from the bench helping them across the finish line.
Of their last appearance in a final, in 2020, only six of the team lined out on Sunday night. If you add in Cormac Murphy from their 2019 win over Glen, it takes to seven and highlight’s the turnaround in players.
“We knew coming down the straight that we had the players coming off the bench that could make an impact,” said McGuckin, putting it down to their hand being forced during the group stages.
Injuries in the camp allowed recent Derry minor trio Ronan Walls, Ryan Lennox and Conall Heron to taste senior action.
“They certainly didn’t let us down,” McGuckin added. “We are delighted with our win, we are delighted to get through to a semi-final but we know it’s all to play for.”
The second semi-final pits champions Glen against Sleacht Néill on Sunday (Owenbeg 6pm) as the race for the John McLaughlin heats up.
In the Intermediate Championship, there are two mouthwatering semi-finals.
Champions Glenullin take on Drumsurn on Saturday (Owenbeg 3.45pm) in a repeat of last year’s final which the Glen won.
On Sunday, it’s the turn of Banagher and Greenlough to lock horns (Owenbeg 4pm) in the other semi-final.
The Junior Championship is always down to the last four with Magherafelt hosting both semi-finals on Sunday.
Moneymore and Glack do battle at noon with league champions Ballymaguigan and last year’s beaten finalists Ballerin (2pm) going toe to toe in a crunch encounter.