Porlaoise go in search of provincial glory once again this weekend, as the most successful club in the province attempt to derail the Ballymun Kickhams juggernaut in Mullingar.
Rory Delaney looks ahead to this Sunday’s Leinster Club Football Final
After suffered semi-final heartache to St Brigid’s last year, Portlaoise have had their air of a side out to rectify that defeat this year. They only really started to peak towards the end of the Laois championship, and their performance over St Patrick’s in the Leinster quarter-final was hugely impressive.
Having gotten a good, tough workout against Killoe in the semi-final, their first real test since the surprise draw with Portarlington earlier in the Laois SFC. They would have enjoyed a few more games of that kind during the year, but they arrive in the final in good shape and confident mood.
Standing between them and glory is a Ballymun Kickhams side which lacks the experience of playing in games of this magnitude, but are brimming with all the other qualities needed to win the Leinster championship.
Paul Curran, the former Dublin wing-back, has overseen an impressive 2012 season to date for Ballymun, who won their first Dublin SFC title since 1985 on the October Bank Holiday Monday.
While that success in itself has been impressive, it is their season as a whole which deserves special mention. Ballymun topped the Dublin senior football league with 14 win in 15 games. In those 15 games, they finished with a scoring difference of +103, and had the best defence in the competition as well. They surprisingly lost their semi-final to St Sylvester’s, but it proved to be only a pothole on the road to the Leinster final.
They have won every game since, some of them real tough battles, such as their quarter-final win over St Vincent’s in Dublin, which went to extra time and left Ballymun needing a late point from Dean Rock to sneak home by a point. They had just one point to spare over a very experienced Kilmacud Crokes team in the Dublin final too, and have progressed through Leinster with a steely determination on securing a historic provincial title for the club.
In total this year, between league and championship, they have played 24 games, and have won 22 of them. In their eight championship games, they are scoring roughly 1-13 per game and conceding just 0-9. They are strong across the field, and for the Portlaoise management team trying to plot their downfall, it is an intimidating task.
For Portlaoise, they will first and foremost make sure they are in the best shape they can be. They have had some niggling injuries this year, and Paul Cotter has missed the last two games, but they have coped well, thanks in part to an impressive panel. No team is in too bad a shape when they can afford to call Kevin Fitzpatrick up from the bench.
Their traditional game of strong running and support play can be a joy to watch, but it is difficult to execute at this time of year. Heavy pitches slow the players down and sap their energy that bit quicker, while ball-handling becomes a little trickier as well.
There were spells in the game against Killoe where Portlaoise worked the ball beautifully, picking out great support runs and carrying the ball forward at pace. But they ran into a lot of trouble doing that as well. Killoe defended an area rouhgly 30 yards from their own goal with a real zealous energy, and Portlaoise were forced to either cough up the ball or shoot from angles or distances they wouldn’t normally consider attempting a point from.
They had to change their style during the course of the game, and they played a few more long balls than they traditionally have done in the past. It was a good, and possibly vital, experience for them to be challenged in this way, because they have to adapt again in the final, depending on the challenges that confront them.
Dean Rock’s continued development into a top class forward has helped Ballymun in their upward curve, and if he is allowed too much possession on Sunday it could prove disastrous for Portlaoise. The first way of limiting his influence is limited the amount of possession Ballymun win around the middle of the field, so Portlaoise will need to big improvement in that area from the last day. They really struggled in the second half against Killoe and will need both Adrian Kelly and Conor Boyle to really step it up for the final.
Their free-taking was a cause for concern in the semi-final too, and while Portlaoise generally get enough scores from play not to be too concerned over a couple of missed frees, they are unlikely to have that luxury on Sunday. They will have to be ruthless with every chance they get.
In defence, they have been very impressive this year, but a couple of lapses cost them dearly in the semi-final. Some were owing to the slippery conditions and others were mental errors, which can be rectified with a little more diligence in possession. Making mistakes will be inevitable in a high pressure game at this time of year, but keeping them to the minimum is the key.
Like Portlaoise, Ballymun have shown an ability to start games strongly, as they hit early goals in the Dublin final and Leinster quarter-final, while they also took lead out of the blocks against Sarsfields. That should make the opening ten minutes or so very interesting, as both teams try to get the upper hand early on. Whoever manages it could gain a significant mental victory on the day.
Overall, the teams look incredibly well matched. Ballymun’s defence is teak-tough and doesn’t concede much. Portlaoise are the same. Portlaoise might not be as strong in midfield but, if they can step it up, could certainly break even at least. Up front, they have six players all capable of scoring, five of which did against Killoe and the other, Hugh Coghlan, won countless frees to keep them on the front foot.
Experience is the only difference, but it won’t be a decisive one. Portlaoise are good enough to win but need to play better than they have done already this year, topping the effort and quality they produced against Killoe. If they can do that, they have a chance, but Portlaoise are facing up to their toughest game this year by some distance.