The Downs’ Kevin O’Sullivan and Caulry’s Stephen Connolly going for this ball during the sides’ recent Shay Murtagh Precast SFC clash. PHOTO: JOHN MCCAULEY

PREVIEW: Intriguing ties in Flanagan Cup’s penultimate round

By Gerry Buckley

St Loman's Mullingar V Cill Liúcainne/Killucan, 4pm, Saturday 24 September

Na Dúnta V Tyrrellspass GAA, 4pm, Sunday 25 September

I suspect that there would have been near-unanimity among Westmeath Gaels if asked to predict the last three in the race for the Westmeath Examiner Cup before a ball was pucked, but not so the predictions for the last four in the Flanagan Cup.

Such has been the dominance of Raharney, Clonkill and Castletown-Geoghegan in Lake County senior hurling in recent years that the ‘big three’ nickname in the small ball game needs no embellishment.

The big ball equivalent has been less clear-cut, albeit there has been a definitely ‘big two’ this millennium with Garrycastle (an inaugural success in 2001 preceding seven other triumphs and four final defeats) and St Loman’s (champions on six occasions since bridging a half-century famine in 2013, in addition to losing in the infamous all-Mullingar showdown with Shamrocks in 2018, and to Garrycastle in the final a year later).

Indeed, aside from the ‘big two’, only the aforementioned Springfield-based club (three in 2000, 2012 and 2018) and Castledaly (one and only success in 2008), and a brace each for The Downs (2003 and 2005) and Tyrrellspass (consecutive titles in 2006 and 2007), have managed to get their hands on the blue riband trophy in Westmeath Gaelic football since the over-hyped and dreaded ‘millennium bug’ came and went unnoticed on January 1, 2000.

Mullingar Shamrocks and Garrycastle were the two sides ‘relegated’ from Section A to Section B for 2023 after the recent five series of round robin games. Undoubtedly, both clubs are in transition. Castledaly had a disappointing campaign and failed to reach next weekend’s penultimate round games in the race for the Peter Geraghty Cup.

Accordingly, the only ‘outsider’ in terms of silverware in the last four of the 2022Westmeath senior football championship is Killucan, a club in its current guise which has never even reached a senior county final.

They have proven to be something of a surprise packet this year and, in truth, Stephen Morley’s troops have a ‘free shot’ when they line up against overwhelming favourites St Loman’s, Mullingar at 4pm in TEG Cusack Park on Saturday (September 24).

It is expected that on the day of writing the first-ever Tailteann Cup team will be announced. The highly laudable win by Jack Cooney’s charges has guaranteed the tier two champions a sizeable number of slots – anywhere between five and eight methinks.

This figure, be it high or low, seems certain to include no less than three men who ply their club trade on the Delvin Road – John Heslin, Sam McCartan and arguably the player of the competition, Ronan O’Toole.

Without even listing any of the other star players who will wear the dark blue jersey next Saturday, it is clear that the saffron and white-clad outfit face a formidable task. Killucan, of course, possess a player whose individual accolade surpasses what the Tailteann Cup team members will achieve, albeit Killian Doyle’s fantastic – and fully deserved – ‘proper’ All Star nomination is in hurling.

Doyle, of course, is no mean footballer either and he will have several talented colleagues, including his twin brother Ciaran, on board when they face Declan Kelly’s unbackable favourites.

Dual stars abound in the team, all hopefully available after being dethroned as hurling kingpins two days ago in the blue of Raharney – the unfortunate Eoin Keyes being a notable exception.

Sean Leech, Aron Kiernan and Devin Hill are among the very promising players in the ranks of this progressive club. In truth, it will be a shock of mammoth proportions if they manage to prevent St Loman’s from reaching a remarkable eighth successive final. However, the latter can ill-afford even a hint of complacency.

Exactly 24 hours later, also at Westmeath GAA headquarters, a seemingly less predictable clash brings together perennial challengers, The Downs and Tyrrellspass.

Lar Wall’s men are the only unbeaten team in this year’s senior championship and there is a massive hunger in the black and amber-clad ranks to bridge a 17-year gap since they last brought the Flanagan Cup on the short journey out the Dublin road.

Much has been made of The Downs’ dependence on another very strong candidate for Tailteann Cup team honours, the mercurial Luke Loughlin, for inspiration and scores.

However, an injury sustained playing for Clonkill ruled him out of the latter part of his football club’s five-match winning streak, but they still hammered Mullingar Shamrocks without him.

There is no doubt but that he will be needed at full throttle if The Downs are to win on Sunday. Likewise, the availability of promising defender-cum-midfielder, Charlie Drumm, is crucial. Jonathan Lynam figured for his county this year and much will be expected of him also.

Tyrrellspass have, in reality, consistently punched above their weight since their first senior success in 1999. They will not like to be reminded that they have lost four finals to St Loman’s since the Mullingar Blues began their period of dominance in 2013, and yet another repeat of that final pairing is a distinct possibility next month.

Veterans Denis Glennon (like Doyle, a ‘proper’ All Star nominee as far back as the glorious year of 2004) and Ger Egan (who would not have been out of place in any exalted national company for the past decade-plus) remain pivotal to their chances of edging out The Downs.

The ever-consistent Jamie Gonoud (who is sure to garner lots of votes from the Tailteann Cup selectors) and Nigel Harte (who starred against Caulry and was unlucky not to figure in the momentous win over Cavan) are others who can compete with the best in the county. The Downs are widely fancied, but they will be made to fight every inch of the way by Ray Sheridan’s troops.