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Rhode hold the whip hand but Clara have good outside chance

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Rhode hold the whip hand but Clara have good outside chance thumbnailRhode's Alan McNamee and Clara's Thomas Deehan will be two pivotal figures in Sunday's final.

RHODE are in their usual position as favourites for Sunday's Tullamore Court Hotel Senior Football Championship final in Bord na Mona O'Connor Park but they will be very wary of the threat posed by a resurgent Clara.

Rhode's place in the final would have been predicted by almost all observers at the start of the year. They have been the dominant force in Offaly football for almost two decades. They have won nine championships since 1998, eight since 2003 and a win on Sunday would put them top of the Offaly roll of honour on their own - them and Tullamore are joint top at the moment on 27.

Their record has been extraordinary. Since 1998, they have been in every final except 2000, 2002, 2007 and 2011 while they haven't been beaten in a group game since a 2001 defeat by Offaly football. They haven't matched the achievements of the Walsh Island (1978-1983) and Ferbane (1986-1990) six and five in a row winning sides but no club has dominated Offaly football to the extent that they have over such a prolonged period.

It is certainly a golden era for Rhode, though questions are now beginning to be asked about the future. They have struggled to win titles at underage level in recent years and ahead of the county final, members of their team and management found themselves fielding questions about the future and listening to suggestions that they haven't looked as "invincible" this year as other years.

Yet they find themselves fairly warm favourites for Sunday, though there are few who will be writing Clara off. Part of this is that there have been signs of vulnerability about Rhode this year but perhaps we are reading too much into the group games.

Is it a symptom of the very dubious championship format where the eight clubs play each other in the one group or is it signs of slippage by Rhode? Time will adjudicate on that one but the results show that their form hasn't been as good as other years. They haven't been destroying teams to the same extent and ironically one of their biggest and most convincing performances came against their final opponents, Clara when they won by 2-18 to 0-15 - Clara were understrength that day and would have written that game off as one they couldn't win.

In particular, there is a temptation to look at the Cappincur game when Rhode edged home by a point, were on the ropes in the second half and came very close to losing. They also had only three points to spare against Ferbane, Edenderry and Tullamore and in other years, they have often been comprehensive winners over these sides in group games.

Yet we could be reading too much into it. Beaten in the Leinster club final by St Vincent's late last year, Rhode would not have been too worried with their early season form and with an eight team group, they would have known that bar they lay down and slept, they would have reached the knockout stages. The bottom line is that Rhode have won their eight championship games this year and they can't do a whole lot more than that. They were almost caught napping by Cappincur but apart from that, they never really looked like losing and that is certainly not a bad place to be going into a final from.

In the semi-final, Rhode had eight points, 1-15 to 1-7, to spare over Gracefield but the win was far more convincing than the scoreline suggests. They blew Gracefield out of the water early on, were 1-9 to 0-1 ahead at half time and the intensity and pace with which they attacked the first half shows the challenge that lies ahead for Clara. They could even afford the luxury of bringing Alan McNamee on as a sub when his cousin Conor McNamee got injured in the 15th minute and taking him off again at half time - Alan McNamee carried a hamstring injury into the match,

Rhode manager Pascal Kellaghan expects that both Alan and Conor McNamee will be okay for the final. He will be without full back, Eoin Rigney who had a shoulder operation and is out for he season while the experienced Shane Sullivan is rated as fifty/fifty as he recovers from a broken shoulder. "He is on the mend,' said Kellaghan last week.

If Rhode's appearance in the final was as predictable as night following day, Clara's is something of a surprise. They had to survive a relegation play off last year, albeit after being drawn in a group of death with Rhode, Edenderry and Tullamore, while they have struggled a bit in recent years.

Clara enter each season with a weight of expectation on them but this is not backed up by their record: they have won six championships and they have come in three distinct eras, the early 1960s, the early 1990s and the 2000s. There have been years when they have been ferociously competitive but there have been plenty as well when they were short of the mark.

Yet Clara have a very good outside chance here. They have come up on the rails and and at the start of the year, they were behind Ferbane, Edenderry and Tullamore in the list of Rhode's main challengers, yet there has been something very compelling, quietly impressive about the way they have gone about their business. They are also one of the clubs out there with the right mindset, they won't fear Rhode and will positively relish taking them on. It doesn't mean they will win but Clara won't be panicking or having sleepless nights at the thoughts of facing Rhode and that is an important attribute to have.

They hit the ground running in the championship with very important early wins over Edenderry and Gracefield before drawing with Tullamore.They lost heavily to Rhode in their next game but even at that early stage, it was clear that they had turned a corner and deserved respect. After that, a win over Cappincur sealed their quarter-final place, they lost to Ferbane and completed their group campaign with a easy win over St Rynagh's.

They have been impressive in the knockout stages, beating Edenderry in the quarter-final by five points while they had a point to spare over Ferbane in the semi-final. That was a controversial win with an injury time Scott Brady goal that was taken from the wrong position giving them victory but Clara deserved their win on the day.

You can make a case for a Clara win here. In Matthew Mitchell, Thomas Deehan, Ross Brady, John O'Hara, Scott Brady and Graham Guilfoyle, they have a hardcore of very experienced players while they also have plenty of good young talent. Carl Stewart, Colm Doyle, John Ledwith and Luke Dignam are among the younger players who have impressed and they have been very steady as a team the whole year.

At the same time, they will have to produce the game of their life to beat Rhode. The reigning champions have an awesome array of talent. Shane Sullivan, Brian Darby, Niall Darby, Anton Sullivan and Niall McNamee have played a huge amount of county football, Conor McNamee, Paraic Sullivan and Ruari McNamee have also been on the senior squad and others have played at underage level.

They bring an intensity to their game that very few in Offaly match on any sort of consistent basis and the odds do favour Rhode. They aren't invincible and Clara will give it one hell of a rattle but the reality is that Clara will have to play at their very best to win whereas Rhode could afford a thing or two going wrong and still win.

Staying with Rhode and ensuring that they don't move out too far in front early on will be key for Clara. They came back from a seven point deficit against Ferbane but Rhode are a different kettle of fish and they just can't afford to let them build up a lead. If they do, they could be well beaten and the first fifteen minutes will tell a lot.

If it is a dogfight, then Clara will have a real chance and they have the mentality to win it. There are enough signs there to suggest that Rhode will be vulnerable if Clara are in it inside the last ten minutes but the holders are deserving favourites.

 

MATCH ANALYSIS

 

PATHS TO THE FINAL

Group

Round 1: Clara 2-9, Edenderry 0-13; Rhode 0-17, St Rynagh's 0-7.

Round 2: Clara 1-11, Gracefield 0-11; Rhode 0-13, Cappincur 1-9.

Round 3: Clara 0-16, Tullamore 3-9; Rhode 1-15, Ferbane 2-9.

Round 4: Rhode 2-18, Clara 0-15.

Round 5: Clara 4-6, Cappincur 1-9; Rhode 0-9, Edenderry 0-6.

Round 6: Ferbane 0-13, Clara 0-7; Rhode 1-15, Gracefield 1-10.

Round 7: Clara 2-15, St Rynagh's 0-5; Rhode 2-12, Tullamore 1-12.

Quarter-final

Clara 1-11, Edenderry 0-9.

Semi-finals

Clara 1-13, Ferbane 1-12; Rhode 1-15, Gracefield 1-7.

 

MANAGEMENTS

Clara: Manager, Darren Kelly; trainer, David McCaffrey; selectors, Derek Coyne and Seanie Monaghan.

Rhode: Manager, Pascal Kellaghan; trainer, Jack Cooney (Westmeath); selectors, Declan Gorman and Alan Kellaghan.

 

STAR MEN

Clara: Graham Guilfoyle - Guilfoyle is a hugely important figure for Clara. Now approaching the peak of his career, he is the middle man between the older more experienced players and the younger ones. A very versatile player, he has played full forward in recent games and this has worked well for Clara. He has blistering pace, can finish and great skill. He is the one Clara player that Rhode will be very conscious of.

Rhode: Anton Sullivan - For the last decade plus, Niall McNamee has been Rhode's star man and he remains a hugely important figure for them. If he hits form, Clara's victory chances will nose dive dramatically and they will be making special plans for him. Anton Sullivan, however, has developed into an absolutely crucial player for Rhode. His energy, his relentless running, his enthusiasm, his no holds barred football brings so much to them and if he can keep his head, he will have a big bearing on this final.

 

CAPTAINS

Clara: Ross Brady and Bobby Mitchell.

Rhode: Niall McNamee and Anton Sullivan.

 

KEY MEN

Clara: Carl Stewart, Colm Doyle, Thomas Deehan, Ross Brady, John O'Hara and Ross Brady.

Rhode: Brian Darby, Niall Darby, James McPadden, Alan McNamee, Niall McNamee and Ruari McNamee.

 

DECISIVE BATTLE

The midfield battle will be a decisive one. Rhode will be hoping that Alan and Conor McNamee are fully fit and that Shane Sullivan can take his place in defence. They started Dylan Kavanagh and Darren Garry there against Gracefield but ideally would like to pair the two McNamee's in midfield. Clara will start with Thomas Deehan and Ross Brady, with Scott Brady certain to see action out here at some stage and there is also the possibility of moving Graham Guilfoyle out. If the two McNamee's don't start here, then Clara will have a good chance of shading it. Thomas Deehan's selection at midfield this year was a brave move by Clara but it has worked. He is not a high fielder but he is such a natural ball player and has such football intelligence that he has prospered out here. Alan McNamee importance to Rhode remains very high and if he starts and is fit, their prospects immediately shoot up. It is close enough to a 50/50 battle and it will have a major impact on the outcome.

 

VERDICT

There has been something strangely compelling about Clara this year and they have a chance of crowning a sensational year with the ultimate price. Yet when you sit down to assess this game, it becomes hard to look beyond Rhode's credentials. They have not been as good this year as other years but are still capable of exploding into the county final. If Clara are to win, it is likely to be by a couple of points in a real dogfight, whereas Rhode could win with a bit more to spare. Clara, however, will give it a real lash and won't be far away. At the same time, the most logically coherent argument can be made for Rhode winning here. They play with a real pace and intensity and they can go to the top of the Offaly football roll of honour on their own.

Verdict - Rhode

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