Newtown Blues celebrate their Joe Ward success of 12 months ago. They put their senior championship title on the line against Naomh Máirtín this afternoon. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)
Newtown Blues enter Sunday’s senior final with an almost unbackable price on their heads as their bid for two-in-a-row gathers momentum approaching the final fence.
They face Naomh Máirtín, first-time finalists, in a probable pairing. And, in many ways, it’s the dream decider between the pick of what the county has to offer, and a repeat of the Cardinal O’Donnell Cup match, won last month by Blues, who are now aiming for the double.
In lifting the league silverware for the 13th time, they dethroned The Jocks at a sodden Gaelic Grounds and a repeat is being tipped this time around. Indeed, if Naomh Máirtín were to turn the tables and dispossess the champions, it would account for arguably the biggest upset since St. Joseph’s pipped St. Patrick’s in 2006.
The pair met in round one, with Blues prevailing comfortably, but Máirtín’s, having survived a major scare against Kilkerley Emmets - mainly due to JP Rooney’s impact off the bench, have improved several fold since then and advanced past O’Connell’s and St. Patrick’s seamlessly.
Blues, on the other hand, have freewheeled on the championship slopes, encountering only passive resistance against each of Máirtín’s, Kilkerley, Joe’s and Dreadnots, the latter of whom were especially disappointing.
But their run has been ominous, regardless of the oppositions, putting to bed notions that they may be coming into the decider somewhat undercooked. Their adaptiveness to respective challenges has been under-heralded and perhaps their form has failed to get due recognition.
Winning 15 of 16 league and championship matches takes some doing and while defeat on Sunday would blotch their campaign indelibly, their record is competitive to that of Pat’s when they were at their peak. And they have similarly dominant figures with Andy McDonnell, Kevin Carr, Ciarán Downey and Ross Nally performing like Paddy Keenan, Ray Finnegan, Eamon Carroll and Danny O’Connor did year after year.
Thus, as the ninth different finalist of the decade, Máirtín’s are expected to fall like Cooley Kickhams, Dreadnots, St. Mary’s and Dundalk Gaels, under the weight of the favourites’ pressure, when, in reality, we could be set for a ding-dong struggle.
The average winning margin in Joe Ward affairs since Mattock Rangers saw off Cooley in 2010 has been just under six points and if the victory total on Sunday exceeds that it would be a huge surprise.
Blues have so much poise and skill, held together at the back by Louth defenders in Fergal Donohoe and Emmet Carolan, the competition’s most mobile midfield pairing, featuring McDonnell and John Kermode, added to a prolific attack in which all generally contribute to their scoreboard tally. While, as sweeper, Colm Judge effects - practically dictates - matters from deep.
The gulf isn’t as dramatic, though, for The Jocks have weapons of their own in that Mick Fanning holds their rear-guard in check with county custodian Craig Lynch a line behind, while Eoghan Callaghan and John Clutterbuck, giddy half- backs, are dual threats, acting as stringent defenders and incisive attackers.
Midfield, no doubt, is where Blues have the upper hand in a fast-paced game, but if two of Wayne Campbell, Gavan Mooney or Conor Morgan can impose themselves, Máirtín’s will have a platform to allow Sam Mulroy, Rooney, Stephen Campbell and especially Conor Whelan - their most dangerous player in the knockout stages thus far - to do the damage. Conor Healy, their No. 12, is also a worthy punt to be the first goalscorer with his positional ability and tendency to ghost behind defensive cover something Blues will surely have touched upon in their preparation.
There is a championship in the Monasterboice men, but it is unlikely to be presently. Blues have, along with an abundance of craft and guile, experienced the winning sensation, despite the majority of their cohort being of such tender years.
Youth and winning is a dangerous cocktail and this is largely why Ronan Phillips’ team are viewed as unchallengeable by the majority. But the Máirtín’s young guns have developed in competition with Blues, winning as often as otherwise and that is a noteworthy variable ahead of Sunday afternoon.
It could then come down to the players who have seen it before, as Kermode, Judge and McDonnell step forward.
Newtown should win this episode, but the battle of the blues will be ongoing for some time to come.