Pictured ahead of the Tullamore Court Hotel Offaly Junior 'A' Football Championship final at O'Connor Park next Saturday were Morgan Tynan of Ballinagar and Jordan Quinn of Kilcormac-Killoughey.
WITH the Senior, Senior “B” and Intermediate Football Championship finals all down for decision, the junior showdown between Kilcormac-Killoughey and Ballinagar will barely touch on the radar of most supporters this weekend.
Outside of the two competing clubs and in Ballinagar's case, their parish neighbours and a few surrounding clubs, there won't be much neutral interest in this final.
Yet in its own way, it is as appetizing, as appealing as any of the much higher grades. It pits a hurling stronghold, Kilcormac-Killoughey against Ballinagar, a club absolutely starved of success for most of its existence.
Kilcormac-Killoughey are favourites for this final. They should be red hot favourites really. They have the pick of a big parish with a huge number of young players and they have a powerful footballing tradition.
Football, however, is very much a secondary game in K-K. There have been many years when they have competed with none or very little specific football training at adult level. They have occasionally dropped down a grade and won a championship.
They have competed at senior level up and down – in fact, Kilcormac were beaten by Ferbane in the 1986 Senior Football Championship final, not long before Kilcormac-Killoughey was formed. They have won junior and intermediate titles and have always produced good footballers. Over the years, some of their best hurlers have been very good footballers – for examples, long time senior hurling stalwarts, Conor Mahon, Dan Currams and James Gorman all played underage for Offaly, as has Damien Kilmartin.
Take young Adam Screeney as an example. As a minor, he can't play adult competitions and won't be featuring in this final. His natural brilliance and flair won him national admirers as he helped Offaly go so close to a historic All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship title this year. He is also a brilliant footballer, bringing those same ingredients to that game. People who have seen him at underage level for K-K have been genuinely excited by his football skills and he would have been a great asset to Offaly minor footballers this year. Hurling, however, will be his game and will ensure that he tries to make county level here rather than football – and no one can say anything to anyone who chooses the game they love most. And Screeney has plenty of footballing DNA – his grandfather Paddy Screeney won an All-Ireland minor football medal with Offaly in 1964 and football was his game. However, after the 1987 amalgamation, football took a back seat to hurling in the Kilcormac area and winning the Senior Hurling Championship is the focus of the club each year – it means that there are very few players growing up in the parish with football as their first game.
Their presence in lower grades has occasionally annoyed football clubs, who are very serious about the game but find themselves up against a team that they can't beat. You can question K-K's presence in junior football at the moment – they were in the intermediate final just two years ago and were not far off St Rynagh's in that. Yet they have now slipped into football's fourth tier and that is a very low level for a parish of this size.
Yet, results dictate a team's standing. K-K's insistence on putting nearly all their eggs into a hurling basket is their choice and must be respected. It is the way things are.
It has, however, meant that they have been favourites for the Junior Football Championship from the minute they got relegated last year. Ironically, they have put more of an effort into football this year than they have on many occasions in the past and K-K are well capable of competing at a higher level.
Their victory in the junior football final is far from a formality. There is every chance Ballinagar will win it and the fact that they only play one code and have been training for that all year is a definite advantage to them.
Ballinagar are crying out for success. They have been in the doldrums for decades. They won a Minor Football Championship way back in 1932 but that was by default really – Belmont won well but fielded illegal players and had it removed in the board room. Ballinagar's golden era was at the turn of the 1980s.
They had a handful of players who played for Raheen in the 1985 Senior Football Championship final defeat by Edenderry – in those days, players could play junior for their own club and senior with another club in the parish. Three years later, they won their only adult championship, the Junior Football, beating Mucklagh in a fiercely contested final. They were beaten by a Vinny Claffey inspired Doon in the 1989 Intermediate Football Chammpionship final, remained competitive for another couple of years and then ceased to be contenders.
That 1988 side occupies an elevated place in the Ballinagar story and there are powerful connections between the current squad and that. Corner back, Brian Malone is a son of John Malone; forward, Ray Daly is a son of Enda Daly and Adam Joyce, midfield against Edenderry in the semi-final, is a nephew of Pascal, Brendan and Declan Cuskelly who were all key players in that 1988 final – their mother Elaine is a sister of the trio. Corner forward, Robbie Gallagher's father Paurig was a sub in 1988 and wing back, Ryan Dunne's grandfather, Jim Dunne was a selector in 1988.
They went back to junior several years ago and have had far more bad days than good ones there. Things, however, have turned in recent years. The seeds of Ballinagar's rehabilitation were sown back in the late 1990s as the Celtic Tiger loomed in view and building developers mopped up land near the village.
Three significant housing developments took place, bringing new people and life into the area – the local school went from a three teacher one to the big school it now is and eventually, the GAA club reaped the benefits. Ballinagar had the bulk of the players on the Na Fianna team that won the Minor Football Championship three years ago and many of these are starring for the juniors now.
The population growth has seen Ballinagar put in a second team for the first time in over twenty years – their junior C side has been putting up some huge scores and this is not surprising. It includes many players who played junior a couple of years ago but have now been displaced by the bright emerging talent. Ballinagar's health has been demonstrated by the fact that they won both Division 4 and 5 Football Leagues this year.
For decades, you almost never saw a Ballinagar player on a county team. Now they have been cropping up regularly on minor and U-20 sides. Morgan Tynan, the son of a Laois father and Tubber mother, is an example of the way the house building programme brought people into the area – he was outstanding as Offaly won the All-Ireland U-20 Football Championship last year. Tynan, Diarmuid Finneran, Adam Strong and Geordi O'Meara all started for Offaly U-20 footballers in their first round win over Carlow this year.
That was a serious representation from a small junior club. Just when Ballinagar were beginning to dream big, however, fate dealt them a devastating hand. Morgan Tynan did his hamstring in their last group game and a scan ruled him out for the season. Ryan Strong, a former Offaly minor footballer, is also out for the season while his twin, Adam is in Texas on a college work placement.
Morgan Tynan and Ryan Strong are massive losses to Ballinagar. They are two of their most physical players and their midfield is greatly weakened as a result. Ballinagar are hoping that Adam Strong can be got home from Texas for the final and their prospects really depend on this. They beat Edenderry in the semi-final without him but it is hard to see them getting over K-K without his power and strength.
This pair have been easily the best teams in the championship, unbeatable really. K-K topped group one with three wins out of three against Tullamore, Durrow and Rhode – they scored 6-10 against Rhode though they were pushed much harder when they clashed again in the semi-final, squeezing to a 0-11 to 0-7 win. Alex Kavanagh, scorer of a sensational 3-4 the first day against Rhode, didn't start and K-K were relieved to win.
K-K have welcomed back an Offaly 2021 U-20 star, Cathal Donoghue after a long lay off with a knee injury. O'Donoghue went off injured against Rhode in the semi-final after getting a hefty knock but they are hopeful he will be okay for the final. His presence will tip the scales in K-K's favour.
Ballinagar also came out of their group with full points. They had comprehensive wins over Kilclonfert and Edenderry before getting a walkover from Doon. That long lay off did not help them for the semi-final against Edenderry and with Tynan and the two Strongs missing, there was a feeling they were sitting ducks. However, they performed very well in a 0-15 to 0-8 win and that suggests they have some sort of a chance here.
With Morgan Tynan and Ryan Strong on board, this would be more or less a 50-50 game but you would still tip K-K. With them gone, the odds really favour K-K but it would not be a huge surprise if Ballinagar snatched it. They would need absolutely everything to go right for them but they are playing well, their confidence is flying. They could do it but you would have to back K-K at the moment and perhaps to win by a few points.
Verdict – Kilcormac-Killoughey.
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