Saturday 20th October 2018
Ulster IFC Quarter-Final
St Mary's Banagher v Art McMurrough's Belnaleck
After conquering their first county title in 66 years a fortnight ago in Owenbeg, St Mary's Banagher will step into the Ulster arena to face last year's JFC runners-up Art McMurrough's Belnaleck of Fermanagh.
The Belnaleck rise has been meteoric. Having clinched the Fermanagh JFC last season, Colm Bradley's side rode their momentum through this season's IFC, seeing off Irvinestown in the county final to set up an Owenbeg date with Banagher.
The Derry men are currently riding their own wave of momentum. Having already claimed a Division 2 league and championship double, St Mary's then had a week to return their feet to earth, and a last-minute goal from Mark Lynch proved enough to see off Newbridge and clinch their promotion back into the top flight for 2019.
Spearheaded by Declan Mullan and former Derry star Enda Muldoon, Banagher drew their opening game against fierce rivals Foreglen, before eventually easing past them in the resulting replay. Wins over Faughanvale and Steelstown set up a bruising final encounter with St Trea's Ballymaguigan, with Ciaran Lynch eventually firing home the killer blow late in the game to seal the victory.
Belnaleck finished fourth in their league behind Belcoo, winners Teemore and a resurgent Enniskillen Gaels. In the opening championship round, much like their opponents on Saturday, they took a replay to get past Maguiresbridge, before a two-point win over Enniskillen set up a final meeting with Irvinestown, with McMurrough's winning by seven points.
The prospect of Mark Lynch going toe-to-toe with Ché Cullen is worth the admission alone. The Fermanagh star has recently received an All-Star nomination for his summer heroics in the green jersey, while Lynch has been pivotal in Banagher's success, producing a Man of the Match performance in the county final.
Ché's twin brother Lee is another key player for the Belnaleck men, while Kane Connors has also had a solid season for both club and county in defence. Up front, Darragh McGurn has terrorised defences throughout Fermanagh all summer, culminating in the phone call from Rory Gallagher asking him to join the county panel. Conor Macauley provides able assistance to McGurn in the Belnaleck forward line.
Banagher have real strength in depth in their panel, with final goalscorer Ciaran Lynch being sprung from the bench to have a telling impact. Captain Paul Cartin is a fine leader in the half backline, while Peter Hagan's accuracy and intelligent play make him a consistent threat in the half forward line. Conor Feeney was almost omnipresent in the county final, his energy and talent proving instrumental in their victory.
In Darrell McDermott, they have a goalkeeper who has only had his net breached once throughout the championship, and that in the dying embers when Barry McGlone squeezed an effort past him.
These Ulster matches are always difficult to call, but Belnaleck sprung from the junior ranks last season, while Banagher were still a senior side in Derry. Both are on an upward trajectory, but with the Derry men having recent dining experience at the top table, they go into the game as slight favourites and are well-placed to reach the Semi-Final stage.