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Hard to look past the favourites in both of Sunday’s O’Moore Park county finals

Laois Shopping Centre SFC Final

Ballylinan v Portlaoise in O’Moore Park at 3.45pm. Referee: John Flynn (The Rock)

The Irish folk group The High Kings have a song called Fields of Glory that seems relevant on a day like today.

It’s the big day on the Laois football calendar, one that pits 31-time champions Portlaoise against a Ballylinan side playing in only the club’s second ever senior final and looking for the first title in their long history.

“Supporting their team with a true sense of place,” goes one of the verses in that High Kings song. “Are the handful of people with pride on their faces; They come from the townslands, the parish, the village; Their banners they proudly unfurl.”

“I’m dreaming of Ireland in fine summer weather,” it goes on, “a crowd of young lads playing football together; all hoping that someday the call they will answer; to play for the place they were born.”

The lyrics apply to any team, anywhere, but there’s a romance about a team like Ballylinan set to march behind the band in O’Moore Park on county final day.

Indeed the Ballylinan community have probably put down the most exciting time of their lives since their semi-final win over Portarlington two weeks ago.

A quick drive through Ballylinan village will give you the sense that it’s been all banners and bunting and banter. For this generation of the club, it’s a whole new experience. You can only imagine what’d be like if they won.

They’re 5/1 outsiders with the bookies and it’s only two years since they were in a relegation final. But they’re a good team under local management with a fine spread of young and experienced players – and a good level of quality in every line of the field.

Outsiders, perhaps, but certainly not no hopers. From goalkeeper, 39-year-old Aidan Walsh, and 41-year-old midfield sub John Kealy to recent county minors like Seamus Lacey and Kevin Byrne, they have a bit of everything. Jamie and Alan Farrell and Gary Walsh have all played senior championship football for Laois in recent years, Cieran Farrell and Richie Ryan were fine underage county players and the likes of Dermot and Cathal Leonard and Larry Kealy have soldiered with the club for many years now.

They’ve had the look of contenders all year, blazing a trail through Division 1B of the league and then pulling off a thrilling win over Portarlington in the final.

Since then they’ve proven far too strong for Mountmellick and then had nine points to spare over both St Joseph’s in Round 2 and Killeshin in the quarter-final. Their semi-final was a crazy, seven-goal, thriller against Portarlington but again Ballylinan came out on the winning side, this time on a scoreline of 4-10 to 3-8.

In all they’ve scored 11 goals in four games, a greater average per game than any other side in the county. Their scoring average is greater than any other team in the county too and while you’ll hear it said that Portlaoise haven’t been tested en route to the final, their winning margin is exactly the same as Ballylinan’s, both having a little over eight points per game to spare over their opponents.

 

Portlaoise have put teams away early, seeing off O’Dempsey’s twice, Arles-Kilcruise and Graiguecullen. Losing last year’s final hurt badly and they’ve come back strongly. While they may not have been as dominant in recent years at underage level as they had been prior to the start of their nine-in-a-row success, they have produced enough quality players to remain as the top dogs in the county.

There has been a relatively high level of turnover since last year’s final. Only eight of their team that started this year’s semi-final win over Graiguecullen started last year’s loss to Stradbally. The likes of Cahir Healy, Brian Glynn, Craig Rogers and Stuart Nerney haven’t been involved at all. David Seale and Brian Smith have only had limited roles. That’s a lot of quality to have to replace.

For David Holland, Frank Flanagan, Ciaran McEvoy, Benny Carroll and Scott Lawless it’s a first final to play in. They’ve big shoes to fill alright but they bring a new hunger and energy while the class and experience of Brian McCormack, Brian Mulligan, Kieran Lillis, Paul Cahillane, Gareth Dillon and captain Conor Boyle ensure they have a serious outfit too.

Malachy McNulty is a very promising young manager and has great buy-in from a big panel. They went on a training trip almost en bloc to France on the week of Electric Picnic, having to take time off work and all at their own expense. You also have to remember that it’s less than two years since they lost a Leinster club final in agonizing fashion to Ballyboden St Enda’s, a side that later went on to win an All Ireland.

Portlaoise may not be as strong as they once were but they should have enough. It’s likely that Ballylinan will need everything going right for them and lot to go wrong for Portlaoise for the Jack Delaney Cup to be heading out of The Town for a second year in a row this evening.

“On the fields, the fields of glory,” goes the chorus of that High Kings song. “On the fields where boys become men; On the fields, the fields of glory; May the best team win, win in the end.”

Verdict: Portlaoise

Midlands Park Hotel U-17 ‘A’ FC Final

Stradbally Parish Gaels v Courtwood-Emo-The Rock at 1.45pm

The curtain raiser is the U-17 final, something that will probably become the norm from now on given that minor will no longer be U-18 and 17-year-olds can’t play senior.

In a sign of the times perhaps, this year’s final will see six different adult clubs with an interest – Annanough, Timahoe and Stradbally taking on Courtwood, Emo and The Rock.

Courtwood-Emo-The Rock come in as the hottest of favourites, having won the last couple of U-16 titles and having seen off reigning champions Portarlington in the semi-final on Monday night.

They have a large selection of players with underage county experience with the likes of Niall Dunne and Sean O’Flynn prominent at U-17 and minor with Laois this year. Another to watch out for is Matthew Byron, son of former Laois All Star Fergal and scorer of 1-6 in the semi-final.

Stradbally Parish Gaels got a walkover from Sarsfields in their first game so their only game was their semi-final win over St Joseph’s when they produced a stirring comeback to reach this stage. Damien McCaul and Killian Horgan both caught the eye with the Laois U-17s and minors while Mark O’Connell got two goals in the win over St Joseph’s.

The sideline battle will see former Laois players Michael Lawlor and Tony ‘Barney’ Maher on opposing teams, with Maher’s son David worth keeping an eye on too, a huge presence who is also making a name for himself as a promising rugby player.

Courtwood-Emo-The Rock have a great track record at underage level in recent years and when it comes down to it, it’s hard to look past them in this.

Verdict: Courtwood-Emo-The Rock

SEE ALSO – Strong links between the last Ballylinan team to reach a county final and the 2017 side