Pictured ahead of the Tullamore Court Hotel Offaly Senior Football Championship final at O'Connor Park next Sunday were Michael Brazil of Tullamore and Niall McNamee of Rhode.
THE 2022 Senior Football Championship final is almost a complete role reversal from the way things used to be.
Back a short few years ago, Rhode were invariably warm favourites for every final they contested but now the shoe is on the other foot – and at this stage of their footballing journey, that is not something that will bother them one little bit.
The dominant force in Offaly football for the past two decades, Rhode find themselves in unfamiliar territory – cast as underdogs with the odds stacked against them and written off by the vast majority of neutrals.
It is an uncomfortable place for Tullamore and it remains to be seen how their young players in particular will adapt to and cope with the weight of expectancy.
It also means that the final is set up for a classic snatch and grab raid, a shock result and this is a very big possibility. Tullamore have done it to Rhode in the past when they were rank outsiders. They did it in the 2013 final and they did it over a decade earlier, coming back from the dead in the 2002 semi-final and beating them in a replay.
It will make for an absolutely fascinating shootout. The fact that it is between Rhode and Tullamore is not a surprise to everyone. From the start of the championship, it was clear that not only were these great clubs on collision course for another final but that they were ahead of all the other contenders.
Drawn in opposing groups, it was always likely that they would qualify directly as group winners and thus avoid each other in the semi-finals. And once there, they were odds on to reach another final.
Tullamore and Rhode have enjoyed a monopoly in the Senior Football Championship in recent years. This is their third successive final meeting and the rivalry between Offaly's two most successful clubs has been the dominant feature of the club scene.
Rhode won the 2020 final, 1-9 to 1-7 while Tullamore turned the tables in a replay in 2021, winning by 0-9 to 1-4 after drawing 1-8 each the first day.
Those scorelines tell a tale about how tight games are between them, how ferociously fought they are. No quarter is asked or given, they are tense, defensive affairs with scores at a premium and they are extremely difficult to win.
It is very ununual that no team has managed to get into double figures for points and you can anticipate a similar battle on Sunday.
Both sides will err on the side of caution. Rhode will pull players back to ensure that their defence is not exposed by an exciting Tullamore forward line. Tullamore will be cautious on the ball, recycling it and concentrating on not giving it away cheaply. They will be trying to keep the ball out of the hands of a lethal looking Rhode attack for as long as possible but when they break, they will do so at pace and menace.
There is a long history and tradition between those clubs. Rhode have been a phenomenal force of nature in the past two decades and have got in front of Tullamore on the roll of honour – they have 30 titles compared to 28 for Tullamore.
Such records matter more to supporters than players whose only focus is on the moment but it just provides an interesting snapshot to Sunday's final – Rhode would dearly love to extend their lead by one more. They won't be admitting it and they are producing some good young footballers but Rhode know that their current golden era could be coming to a halt.
They have a lot of their elder statesmen in the end game of their long, remarkably successful careers. Alan McNamee is on the 40 mark, Brian Darby and Paraic Sullivan closing in on it; Niall McNamee's influence will begin to diminish in the coming years. Rhode simply don't have replacements for this calibre of player and it is very possible that once they go, they could go into transition or just pick off the odd championship rather than dominate.
There is also a powerful historical backround for Tullamore. Remarkably they have not managed to retain the championship since 1926, when they completed three in a row. That is a huge blemish on the record of the county's biggest club and population centre. Again, it doesn't matter to the young players now wearing the jersey but it does count for supporters and the club would love to win two in a row.
Both clubs have long term injuries and they cancel each other out. Rhode have lost defenders Eoin Rigney and Niall Darby to cruciate injuries and they are cruel losses from their defence. Tullamore are without two of their brightest emerging prospects, defenders John Furlong (hip) and Oisin Keenan-Martin (cruciate). Cormac Egan missed all the group games with a long term hamstring injury but started the semi-final win over Edenderry, only being replaced in injury time. His return to fitness is a huge boost to Tullamore, even if he is understandably ring rusty.
Rhode will be very concerned about the fitness of Anton Sullivan. Sullivan was stretchered off in the semi-final win over Ferbane after a hefty late tackle and while it is not as bad as first feared, he is in a race against time to be fit.
Tullamore are better able to cope with losses than Rhode, who are stretched in their number of options but the loss of a key player or two could fatally damage them.
Tullamore also have players entering their veteran stages – Johnny Moloney, Michael Brazil and Paul McConway are all getting on in football terms, Declan Hogan is not a gossun any more but Tullamore have the best, most exciting talent in Offaly emerging onto the scene. Their retention of players from minor into adult ranks has not always been great but this bunch does look to be different – though time will adjudicate on this.
Both sides came through their group campaigns with expected comfort. Tullamore won three out of three in group one, beating Ferbane, Shamrocks and Cappincur. Ferbane pushed them hard but Tullamore were impressive in the group, switching between third and fourth gear and playing within themselves.
Rhode had a similar story in group 2 where they had a 100% record against Edenderry, Clara and Durrow. It was very tight against Edenderry while they never really looked like losing against Durrow or Clara, even though they held a bit back in reserve.
The semi-finals did suggest that Rhode have improving to do for the final. Their win in the semi-final over Ferbane was incredible in many aspects. They were in dire trouble when four points down early in the second half but they showed fantastic character to force extra time. The sides were still level at the end of that and Rhode won 3-2 on penalties.
It was as sweet as many of their great triumphs and the manner in which Rhode keep going to the well, keep excelling and challenging for titles is an absolute credit to them.
You can, however, only go to the well so often and it remains to be seen if Rhode can keep visiting it. There could be one more powerful sting in the tail for them but they need everything to go very right to win this title.
Tullamore are continuing to develop. While this current Rhode team are gone beyond their prime, Tullamore have not yet reached theirs. It doesn't mean they will win on Sunday but there are comparisons to be drawn between Tullamore and the Rhode of a few years ago. History suggests they won't do it but Tullamore have the players and ability to develop into a serious force of nature for a few years.
Without being brilliant, there was something compelling about the way they snuffed the life out of Edenderry in the semi-final. Once they got three and then four points clear, Tullamore were never in real danger of losing and they stormed home in the closing minutes. They have more exciting talent who will comfortably be senior footballers in a couple of years and it all has the potential to be a golden era for Tullamore.
Winning this title is important for them. Putting two back to back would be an important breakthrough and at the moment, Tullamore look to have the perfect mix of youth and experience.
They will, however, be very wary of the threat Rhode possess, the attacking aces they have, their experience, their lack of fear and their ability to win championships. Rhode's attack will give them a chance against every team. In Niall McNamee, Anton Sullivan and Ruari McNamee, they have three of the best forwards in Offaly while Aaron Kellaghan is capable of having a really good day. Anton Sullivan was stretchered off in the win over Ferbane but the expectation is that he will be able to play in the final.
They will come up against a really tight, tenacious defence. Declan Hogan is likely to be tasked with marking Niall McNamee once again and that will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.
Michael Brazil and Aaron Leavy will be hoping to edge the midfield battle and Tullamore have a wide and varied scoring threat up front – they don't have the star names that Rhode possess but any one of them could emerge as a match winner in the final.
Tullamore sort of fell over the line in last year's final. They were denied the win by a late Niall McNamee goal the first day and they had some very nervous late moments before winning the replay. Rhode will be competitive and they have more than enough quality to win another title. At the same time, Tullamore do look to be progressing, evolving, improving this year. You couldn't really say that Rhode have improved this year and it suggests that Tullamore can retain the title for the first time since 1926.
Verdict – Tullamore.
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