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Slaughtneil exit will be spur for Ulster clubs: McConville

 

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Big chance: Benny Heron of Ballinascreen in action against Slaughtneil

Big chance: Benny Heron of Ballinascreen in action against Slaughtneil

Big chance: Benny Heron of Ballinascreen in action against Slaughtneil

Slaughtneil's surprise exit from the Derry Senior Football Championship has suddenly provided a raft of teams with an unexpected opportunity to make their play not just for recognition within their own counties but for previously unimagined glory on the provincial stage.

With five other reigning champions having already bitten the dust in their respective county Championships - Lamh Dhearg (Antrim), Cavan Gaels (Cavan), Harps (Armagh), Omagh St Enda's (Tyrone) and Kilcar (Donegal) - the door has dramatically been flung open to those sides who have remained in the shadows to make their pitch for glory.

With Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone and Derry set to host their Championship semi-finals this weekend, there will be heightened interest in the outcome of matches not just because new champions will be crowned in all four counties but because the triumphant outfits will now be afforded a viable chance to rule the roost in Ulster.

Over the course of the past 14 years, only four teams - Crossmaglen Rangers (8), Slaughtneil (3), St Gall's (2) and Ballinderry (1) - have taken delivery of the provincial trophy yet this is in sharp contrast, for instance, to the hugely competitive Tyrone Championship in which seven different sides have been crowned champions within the last eight years.

And with increased attendances at club games across the province, there is now the inviting prospect of what could prove to be one of the most competitive club Championships for many years.

Up until Wednesday night, Slaughtneil had good reason for thinking that they could make it three Ulster titles on the trot but Eoghan Rua, Coleraine put paid to that and in doing so banished the imposing shadow of the south Derry giants from the provincial landscape.

The reward which Eoghan Rua receive for their superb feat is a semi-final tie on Sunday against a Ballinascreen side that are labelled as the dark horses for the Derry title.

With long-serving Derry forward Benny Heron still very much stitched into their attacking fabric, Ballinascreen will undoubtedly relish the challenge of halting Eoghan Rua in their stride at Owenbeg on Sunday.

With Glen and Lavey due to meet in the other semi-final, the Derry Championship has assumed a fresh look.

Slaughtneil captured the county title in each of the last four seasons and with many of their players currently at the peak of their powers it was felt that the side might be able to make a bold bid for the All-Ireland Club title, something they have failed to win to date.

Former Armagh All-Ireland winner Oisin McConville has vast experience of accumulating Ulster Club Championship honours with Crossmaglen Rangers and knows precisely just how much it means to a team to sit on the provincial throne.

"I think that a number of clubs will now find themselves cast as serious contenders for the Ulster Club title and that can only be good for football in the province," insisted McConville.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there are a lot of quality sides out there and they will understandably feel that with Slaughtneil now out of the picture they will have a realistic chance of maybe not only winning their own county title but going on to make an impact at Ulster level.

"Opportunities to achieve this do not come round too often so I think teams will be going all out over the next few weeks to prove themselves."

Tyrone county board spokesman Eugene McConnell is adamant that the huge crowds which have been attending club Championship matches in his own county and in other counties reflects the rude health of football in the province.

"I think that the game at inter-county level might have been portrayed in a bad light because of lateral passing and what have you but club football is exciting, appealing and can also throw up the unexpected," stated McConnell.

"We have had tremendous crowds at our matches so far and we are expecting the turnstiles to be clicking merrily for our Championship semi-finals on Saturday when Edendork will play Coalisland and on Sunday when Killyclogher will face Ardboe. I know that big crowds will be the order of the day in Derry, Antrim and Armagh for their semi-finals.

"When you consider that there were over 3,000 fans present at Owenbeg for Slaughtneil's quarter-final replay against Eoghan Rua, Coleraine on Wednesday night, this shows you the level of interest there is in club football.

"There are many inter-county Allianz League games that would not attract the same number of fans when you come to think about it."

Belfast Telegraph