Gaels and Masters battle it out for first silver of 2024

By Michael McMullan

THE first piece of silverware of 2024 will be hoisted into the Belfast sky on Monday.

The minor footballers of Cavan Gaels and Four Masters are the envy of every other club in Ulster as their buses nose into the St Paul’s complex.

Four Masters have never won the prestigious competition and will carry the hurt of last year.

The sight of their players sinking to the grass after last year’s final spoke a thousand words. When they failed to put Dungiven away the Derry champions came with a late burst to maintain the impressive Oakleaf record.

Cavan Gaels were winners in 1999 – the county’s only win in the competition – before losing to Pearse Óg in the final 12 months later, a group under the late JJ Reilly that backboned their dominance of the Breffni senior scene.

The Gaels last won the Cavan minor title in 2010 and needed extra-time to see off Mayobridge in a tight battle on St Stephen’s Day.

After victory over Irvinestown, Cavan Gaels looked in trouble in the semi-final until captain Ben Tully dummied the Mayobridge ‘keeper to score the goal that helped them to extra-time.

Leading by a point at the extra-time interval, a majestic individual point by Joshua Shehu was enough tip the scales in the Gaels’ favour.

They’ll have to keep an eye on Conor McCahill on Monday. The Four Masters danger man bagged three goals in their semi-final win over Castleblayney.

It was McCahill that spearheaded their comeback against a fancied Magherafelt side in the opening game with two goals doing the trick in a controversial ending.

At one point Four Masters trailed 0-8 to 0-0 before taking it back to seven points at the break.

Their tactic of lumping all their kick-outs long paid dividends. It’s about getting the ball out of the danger zone where Tomas Carr, Theo Colhoun and Tiarnan McBride scrapped for possession.

Even with that, the Donegal side trailed by five points with five minutes to go when McBride won a penalty that Kevin Muldoon slotted to the net.

McBride wasn’t finished yet; he flicked Turlough Carr’s long ball to the net for the winning goal.

It all sets up Monday’s clash as a mouth-watering one. Killybegs (1984 and 1985) and Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon in 1992 are the only Donegal wins in Ulster underage club football’s showpiece competition.

There will be a change this with no Derry club competing for the Jimmy McConville Cup. The Oakleaf county have amassed a staggering 18 titles and it’s only the second time since 2006 – Cavan Gaels’ last final appearance – that there hasn’t been a Derry team in action.

A look through the Cavan side and they’re a formidable team. Aside from Shehu and Tully, Cormac Crotty is a source of scores and they’ve players who have sampled Rannafast and MacRory Cup football with St Patrick’s, Cavan.

Four Masters will have the confidence of beating Magherafelt in a game that had the feel of the final about it.

Their management team will need to push all the right buttons to reset the focus for Monday. All they need to do is watch the footage from those last few moments of last year’s final.

They are no further forward than last year yet and they’ll need another huge performance if they are to right the wrongs. Cavan Gaels will have their own ideas. Bring it on.

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