Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Knockmore senior football team stand for the National Anthem prior to their Mayo SFC Round 3 clash with Charlestown in Breaffy. Picture: David Farrell Photography

For the first time since 2004, when Ballina Stephenites and Knockmore met in the county final just as the last long spell of North Mayo dominance of the Mayo club championship was beginning to draw to a close, this year’s Mayo SFC decider will be contested between two clubs from the northern division.
Knockmore and Belmullet will meet in Ballina this Sunday (1.30pm), the former looking to retain their grasp on the Moclair Cup, the latter out to get their hands on it for the first time. This will be just a third senior county final for the Erris men; their first was back in 1945 and their second and most recent was 40 years ago this year, when they lost the 1981 final to Garrymore.
Knockmore, in contrast, will be bidding to claim their tenth senior crown and become only the third club, after the Stephenites and the Mitchels, to move into double-digits in the roll of honour. They are the defending champions and are out to go back-to-back for the first time since the 1996-97 seasons.
This is a fascinating final match-up in a few different respects. It has come as no major surprise that Knockmore have returned to a county final this year, but Belmullet rank as a genuine surprise package. Not alone were they an unseeded team in the group stage draw, but they came up against two would-be championship contenders in Breaffy and Westport in the quarter and semi-finals respectively and were big outsiders to win on both occasions.
But win they did, and in similar style in both matches; by keeping the game tight, denying their opponents goals, and striking for majors of their own at critical moments. Belmullet’s defensive record this year is remarkably good. They have conceded just two goals across their five championship games to date, one in the Round 2 win over Knockmore and the other in the Round 3 win over Aghamore. All of Charlestown, Breaffy and Westport, three teams with serious firepower at their disposal, have drawn blanks in front of Shane Nallen and his backline.
That miserliness is no fluke. Belmullet play a game built on defensive solidity and a neverending work-rate. Damien Mulligan’s team are ferocious on the breaks and their tackling is excellent, both in terms of aggression and technique; it was telling that Westport scored only one free in the semi-final, indicating that Belmullet know exactly how to avoid conceding frees in the scoring zone.
In the likes of captain Colin Barrett, the revitalised Eoin O’Donoghue at centre-back, Mikey Barrett in the corner and Shea O’Donoghue on the wing, they have a collection of hardy but disciplined defenders who have been working brilliantly as a collective over the last few weeks. Nallen, their veteran goalkeeper, has the ball-playing confidence of a man who played most of career outfield but his willingness to carry the ball shouldn’t distract from his record of clean sheets and a booming kick-out.
James Kelly earned a starting place for the semi-final win and turned in an excellent performance which should be enough to see him retain the spot for the final. The under-21 All-Ireland winner in 2016 forms part of a physically imposing middle unit for Belmullet alongside Owen Healy, Evan Ivers and Fionan Ryan, who will back themselves to go toe-to-toe with Knockmore’s midfield on Sunday.
Owen McHale has been one of the breakthrough stars of the senior championship, a Mayo under-20 this year who looks to have the tools to make a push for a senior call-up in the near future. Daithi Cosgrove and Kieran Conway are tenacious ball-winning half-forwards whose main role is snaffling up breaks and linking the play in transition, while the likes of the Boylans, Jason and Marty, and Eamon McAndrew are all capable of producing scores if given the opportunity.
Belmullet are first and foremost a collective, but a team needs a talisman to make it as far as a county final, and that’s what they have in Ryan O’Donoghue. The Mayo forward has been a revelation throughout this club campaign, turning in one outstanding performance after another to lead his club to the brink of history.
It would have been easy for O’Donoghue to shrink away from the limelight this autumn, particularly on the back of the All-Ireland final and that missed penalty, but he has done exactly the opposite. The big moments of Belmullet’s run to the final have invariably revolved around him, from the spectacular goal to push the quarter-final beyond Breaffy to the late clincher against Westport. He has been money in the bag over the frees and generally led by example in his willingness to do the dirty work in service to his team.
Over the last two games he has gone toe-to-toe physically with Aidan O’Shea and Lee Keegan and come out on top in both battles. O’Donoghue isn’t huge in stature but he is utterly fearless in how he plays football. Behind him, Belmullet will be completely convinced of their ability to win this final.
But they are facing into their stiffest test yet against this seasoned, balanced, iron-tough Knockmore team. If any doubts still lingered about whether the reigning champions had the requisite hunger to go back-to-back, they were definitively quashed in their superb second-half display against Garrymore in the semi-final, probably the best 30 minutes of football any team has produced in the championship so far this year.  After being second-best for the first half, Knockmore threw off the shackles and, aided by some excellent tactical moves on the sideline, moved up to a level Garrymore were simply unable to match.
The core of the team is essentially the same as that which ended a 23-year wait for a county title last year, with the exceptions of Alan Stadler, who is out for the year through injury, and Darren McHale, who is understood to be 50/50 for the final. Marcus Park has been a like-for-like replacement for Stadler at corner-back while Adam Naughton is a great alternative to McHale at centre-forward.
The one big call Ray Dempsey and his selectors will have to make this week is in the full-forward line, where it looks like a straight choice between James Ruddy and Keith Ruttledge. Ruddy has started the last three games but Ruttledge made a major impact off the bench against Garrymore, scoring the game-changing goal early in the second half, and will be hopeful of a start in the final.
It will be interesting to see who picks up O’Donoghue. Kieran King feels like the most natural option, even if the assignment would reduce his attacking threat. The likes of King, Sean Holmes and Conor Flynn are all still young but they now carry the experience of playing in and winning last year’s final and that will stand to them on Sunday.
Shane McHale, Kevin McLoughlin and Connell Dempsey will feel they have the beating of the Belmullet midfield but they will need to be prepared for a huge physical test. Up front, Adam Naughton and Pearse Ruttledge have struck up a productive relationship in the half-forward line while the two heavy scorers, Aidan Orme and Peter Naughton, are both coming into the final off the back of slightly underwhelming semi-final displays in which neither scored from play, and will be eager to show what they can do.
It feels as if we should know better by now than to tip against Belmullet; they’ve been making fools of the forecasters throughout this campaign and will head into the final absolutely convinced that the title is theirs for the taking.
But Knockmore are a different proposition to both Breaffy and Westport. They can live with Belmullet physically and they carry a potent goal threat. It will be tight either way but the defending champions just about get the nod to win a second title in-a-row.
Verdict: Knockmore

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