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Tuesday 6 December 2016

'Boden on the cusp of history

McEntee's defence has been Scrooge-like all year ... now one more miserly hour will ensure further final pain for Portlaoise

Conal Keaney helps makes up the southsiders’ spine
Conal Keaney helps makes up the southsiders’ spine
Besides Michael Darragh Macauley, pictured right with Darragh Nelson and Darren O’Reilly, Ballyboden do not boast many marquee Dubs

There are echoes of last Sunday's Leinster club hurling final to be found in tomorrow's intriguing conclusion of the province's flagship club football competition.

A Dublin challenger chasing history in the guise of a first AIB Leinster title. A battle-scarred provincial rival seeking to end a recent run of bitter disappointment in this championship.

For Cuala, read Ballyboden St Enda's. For Oulart The-Ballagh, read Portlaoise.

'Boden must hope the echoes end there. Several of their ranks are either current or former Dublin hurling colleagues of star men in the Cuala camp. They won't want to be left sharing the same sense of 'what if?' regret at 3.30 tomorrow in Tullamore.

Heartbreak

Cuala, of course, were favourites but that counted for nothing once they crossed the whitewash and found an Oulart team, stung by four consecutive Leinster final defeats, who refused to countenance any more heartbreak.

Portlaoise are a slightly different proposition: in historical terms, they remain the most successful football club in Leinster (with a record seven titles) … but only one of those has materialised during their current remarkable run of nine-in-a-row in Laois.

One from eight: not an acceptable strike rate for such a talented group. Their nemesis, almost always, has been the Dublin champions of that particular year, and their six exits to capital opposition in that period includes a brace of Leinster final defeats, to Ballymun Kickhams in 2012 and St Vincent's a year later.

What evidence is there to suggest tomorrow will be any different? Nothing that you could quite regard as compelling, and that helps to explain why Ballyboden are favourites - albeit of the lukewarm variety, as their 4/6 odds confirm.

Then again, Cuala were favourites too.

Ballyboden don't quite carry the same fearsome reputation that would have built up around Kilmacud in their pomp, Ballymun or especially St Vincent's. And that helps to explain why Portlaoise, for all their litany of Dublin-inflicted defeats, will still harbour the belief that this could be their year.

'Boden cannot boast a mercurial forward genius such as Diarmuid Connolly. They don't possess as many marquee Dubs as Ballymun - yes, they have Michael Darragh Macauley, 2013 Footballer of the Year, but he was their only Sky Blue championship panellist this season.

But you've got to wonder how much of their supposed vulnerability is down purely to perception?

Remember, in the county final, they inflicted so much scoreboard damage during their early blitzkrieg that there was never a genuine sense that Vincent's could fully recover. Yet, if Vins were facing Portlaoise tomorrow, you suspect that their odds would be a lot shorter than 4/6.

It's also true that 'Boden aren't designed to shoot the lights out. They've played seven championship ties to reach the uncharted territory of a first Leinster final (five in Dublin, two beyond) for a running total of 8-72.

Nail-Biting

That works out at under 1-11 per game. Not quite Harlem Globetrotters. But here's the thing: they've conceded just 1-64, for an average of under ten points. Bernard Brogan remains the only opponent, in seven hours of football, to breach their defensive ramparts for a goal … and still 'Boden chiselled out a nail-biting one-point victory over St Oliver Plunkett's/ER in that Dublin quarter-final.

In short, Portlaoise may have plundered five goals past Emmet Óg Killoe in their Leinster semi-final … but they might have to conjure up a different way of winning here because a Scrooge-like 'Boden don't indulge in goalfests.

In conversation with The Herald this week, former Kilmacud manager Paddy Carr highlighted both the strength and leadership prowess of the southsiders' central spine.

It starts with Donegal's two-time All Star goalkeeper Paul Durcan (poised to jet in once more from his new Qatari domicile) and continues through Stephen Hiney (retired Dublin hurling captain) at full-back, Darragh Nelson (erstwhile Dublin senior footballer) at No 6, Macauley alongside Declan O'Mahoney (another one-time Sky Blue) at midfield, and then Conal Keaney (too many tag lines to mention) usually loitering with intent around the edge of the square.

Andy McEntee has done a superb job in marshalling this group and turning them back into winners. Nor have they been content to settle for county validation: first day out in Leinster, on a horrible day in Drogheda, they trailed St Patrick's of Lordship at the break but upped the ante to win by four. Their semi-final in Mullingar, away to St Loman's, looked tougher on paper ... in reality they suffocated John Heslin & Co to win comfortably by five.

Portlaoise will hope to push them a lot closer, especially as year-one boss Malachy McNulty appears to have them reaching a peak within sight of that tantalising provincial prize.

They were on the ropes in the drawn Laois final, five adrift of Emo, but summoned something from within to reel off six unanswered points and almost win it. They made no mistake on day two, then overcame Palatine in their Leinster opener just 20 hours later.

Lyrical

They dug out victory over Sarsfields and then cut loose against Killoe. Observers waxed lyrical about the slickness of the approach play and finishing for all five goals.

Paul Cahillane, previously struggling for form, nailed two of them in a standout display; Craig Rogers also delivered his best game of the year; while Brian 'Bruno' McCormack, as ever, is the schemer who makes them tick.

This inside trio shared 4-11 in the semi-final - proof of where Portlaoise are most potent. But how will they fare against those Firhouse Road misers? Will they even have the same platform, given Ballyboden's likely physical edge in the middle-eight battleground?

We reckon not. 'Boden to make history.

Boylesports Odds: Ballyboden 4/6 Draw 7/1 Portlaoise 13/8

Verdict: Ballyboden

Leinster Club SFC final: Ballyboden St Enda’s v Portlaoise (Tullamore, tomorrow 2pm, Live TG4)

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