Battle to be the best to go right down to the wire

GAA: Mayo GAA Senior Football Championship Final

See you Sunday: Knockmore's Kevin McLoughlin and Breaffy's Aidan O'Shea will be squaring off on Sunday in the Mayo Senior Football Championship Final. Photo: Conor McKeown.

See you Sunday: Knockmore's Kevin McLoughlin and Breaffy's Aidan O'Shea will be squaring off on Sunday in the Mayo Senior Football Championship Final. Photo: Conor McKeown.

Come Sunday evening, either a long drought for one of the traditional big beasts of the game or the realisation of a long-held dream for one of the pretenders to the throne will become a reality, when the Moclair Cup is handed over in MacHale Park.

In one of the strangest years in living memory - this year's county final has thrown up a pairing that not many would have predicted at the start of the year.

While eight-time champions, Knockmore, and three-time finalists, Breaffy, are among the top teams in the county and both have been finalists once each since 2016 - the title has alluded them during the dominance of Ballintubber and Castlebar Mitchels over the past decade.

Both have had to overcome major hurdles to get to Sunday's showpiece, both lost games in the group stages and entered the quarter-finals against teams that had topped their groups. But both showed their resilience and saw off the two-time defending champions - Ballintubber in Knockmore's case while last year's beaten finalists, Ballaghaderreen, were quelled by Breaffy.

Their semi-finals saw them face down and send packing the teams that had beaten them in the group stages, with Knockmore seeing off Ballina Stephenites with a sensational showing and Breaffy discarding the challenge of a young Westport outfit at the second time of asking.

Both sides have also claimed the senior league title in recent years, with Knockmore winning last year and Breaffy in 2017 - it's also a game that is proving very hard to call the victors in.

Key battles all over the pitch

Eyes will be firmly focused on how Kevin McLoughlin and Aidan O'Shea perform, respectively, with both being the key men for their sides and whether they get a sufficient grip on the game to give them a major say in where the Moclair Cup winters this year.

McLoughlin was in imperious form in Knockmore's semi-final win over Ballina Stephenites, operating between the midfield and his own half-back line - where he linked the necklace between his side's defence and attack beautifully. He both slipped passes to others bursting on the break and strode through gaps in the Ballina defence, with punishing effect on his opponents.

Who Breaffy task with getting a hold on McLoughlin and curtailing his influence will be a key factor in their ability to win the game. They have a number of options, with James Minogue looking like the man who might be called on to carry out the role, in a manner similar to his performance on Paddy Durcan in Breaffy's do-or-die round two clash with Castlebar.

O'Shea has been, positionally, the most disciplined he has ever been for Breaffy this year. In both games against Westport and against Ballaghadereen, he stayed in at full-forward for the most part, whereas in the past he would often drift out the field to try and get into the game more, thus losing his imposing presence front-of-goal.

In particular against Westport, the Covies sacrificed the attacking threat of Lee Keegan to try and curb his influence. David McHale will no doubt relish the challenge - with Alan Stadler also impressing at the back this year for Ray Dempsey's men.

Apart from the two big names, there are plenty of other top quality players set to be on show on Sunday. Knockmore have blended youth and experience quite expertly this year so far.

The likes of Shane McHale, Darren McHale, Peter Naughton, Keith Ruttledge and Sean Ruttledge, all have previous experience of playing on the big day out in the county - back in 2016.

Peter Naughton, along with Aiden Orme, are a serious powerhouse duo of an inside forward line, while Darren McHale has shown he can be the game-breaker already this year from centre forward.

Connell Dempsey operates between midfield and the half-forward line and the youngster has impressed plenty this year with his showings so far.

Breaffy have loads of inter-county experience to call on, with Seamus O'Shea, Robert Hennelly, Mathew Ruane, Conor O'Shea and Michael Hall all involved with Mayo championship squads over the recent past.

The youngest O'Shea is having one of his best years this season, taking up station in the middle of the field alongside Ruane, with the eldest of the O'Shea brothers, Seamus, manning the centre-half back slot; and in collaboration with Robbie Fadden at wing-forward, Breaffy have one of the most physical middle-thirds you will find, a strength they will look to exploit; and even with Aidan further up the field, it offers them a huge variety of kick-out targets for Hennelly to aim at.

Taking advantage of placed balls

Knockmore will also be looking to exploit their goal kicks, with Colm Reape more than capable of picking out his man with razor-like accuracy on most occasions and, like his opposite number, Hennelly has the ability to drive over long-range frees and 45s.

Free-taking will be an important factor in deciding the outcome of this one, both sides have the luxury of having very accurate dead ball specialists, with Peter Naughton kicking six placed balls in their semi-final win and Aiden Orme also a more than capable placed ball kicker.

For Breaffy - the reliability of Colm Flynn from frees is something they have greatly benefited from this term. The Longford native has been in exceptional form for Breaffy this year and they will need him to maintain that deadly eye on Sunday - while both Conor O'Shea and Tommy O'Reilly are also capable of chipping in with a few scores from frees, if required.

Preparing to perform

Both Ray Dempsey and the Breaffy joint management team of Peter Ford and Shane Conway, will have been studiously working out their match-ups over the past few weeks and there is a chance the big names could all cancel each other out.

As is quite often the way in finals, the hero might not be one of the marquee names - so don't be surprised if it is the likes of a Daire Morrin or a Nathan Armstrong that fills the headlines for next week.

It would be quite easy to peg this game as a coming-side against one trying to finally get over the line - but both sides pack plenty of experience with youthful vigour. Finals are quite often never as exciting a game as the ones that go before it, with winning and only that, the most important thing.

There should be nothing between the teams in this one - but if they get it right it could be a historic first title for Breaffy. But that's a big but!

Verdict: Breaffy

Mayo GAA Senior Football Championship Final

Breaffy v Knockmore

Sunday, September 20 at 3.35pm

In MacHale Park

 

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