2017 got off to a slow start for Hunterstown Rovers. Three straight defeats in the Paddy Sheelan Cup wasn’t the kind of return Jim Mathews would have wanted as he got back in the swing of things following his switch back to the club from O’Raghallaighs.
But since then – the last of those losses came in mid-March – Hunterstown have strung together a run that marks them out as one of the form teams in the county. Sitting just one point off the summit of Division 2, they begin their Championship campaign against St Fechins on Friday night (Stabannon, 8.15pm) in bullish mood.
A couple of high profile losses have cast doubts over Hunterstown’s ability to maintain the pace in the league and match, or even better, last year’s Championship semi-final appearance. Ryan Burns’ ban and captain Muiris O’Suilleabhain’s cruciate injury are significant blows.
But speaking to ThisIsArdee.ie, David Finn says that despite those absences, Rovers have not revised their ambitions for the campaign.
“We want to go the whole way. We want to go as far as we can,” he said. “It’s a cliché, but you just have to go one game at a time. It’s very competitive as always at Intermediate level so you just have to take the next game. The Fechins is the first game and you just take them as they come.
“We think we have just as good a chance as anyone to go on and win it this year. We wouldn’t be afraid of anyone.”
Six wins and a draw in eight league games have been added to as Rovers set up a second straight Paddy Sheelan Shield final against the O’Raghallaighs. The Pairc Baile Fiach men have a busy summer ahead – and they can reasonably be aiming for league and cup success, notwithstanding what they do in the Championship.
Burns’ is Rovers headline act and his 12 week ban has received much attention locally and nationally. Rovers are bearing the brunt of that punishment. The loss of any club’s leading marksman – at any level – is a serious disadvantage.
However, Finn believes that Hunterstown can turn their non-involvement into a positive. He feels it will give other squad members the chance to take on the responsibility and lead the way.
“We have lads all over the place who can step up,” he told us. “That’s the main thing. We have scores from everywhere. With Ryan we’ve put up big scores and without him we’ve put up big scores. Any team would miss him, especially what we brings on the scoreboard.
“But I think we have Paul (Carrie), Alan (Landy) and Padraig (Mathews) who have been around. We saw Paul getting the crucial score against the Finnbars. It’s things like that that get you over the line. We have that experience,” Finn continued.
- Manager – Jim Mathews
- Captain – David Finn
- Key Player – Paul Carrie
- 2017 Top Scorer (League) – Alan Landy (2-25)
- 2017 Ever Presents (League) – Niall Carrie, Brian Mathews, Brendan Lennon, Padraig Mathews, Alan Landy
- How They Fared Last Year – Semi-Finalists
- 2017 League & Cup Record – P14 W9 D1 L4
“The news of both Ryan and Muiris broke around the same time. It was very disappointing over those few days to lose two big players like that. But at the end of the day you look around the team and you have to say there is so much talent everywhere on field. And there’s lads that can slip into those positions.
“You just have to get on with it and come together as a team. Maybe not having those two lads with us will galvanise us a bit more to push on. We’re trying to do it for them but do it for ourselves as well. We want to prove that everyone is good as a team and it’s not just about one or two individuals.”
Rovers have excelled this year – to the surprise of many after an inconsistent 2016 – but remember, they did reach the Intermediate Championship last four, under Paddy McGuinness. That day, they were downed by 3-11 to 0-11 by St Josephs.
It was felt by many the over reliance on Burns’ kicking was stark. Only the O’Raghallaighs have bettered their 14-100 tally in eight league games. Going forward, they’re not left lacking. That’s with Louth man Burns only featuring twice in the league season, notching 2-08 of that total. Finn believes they’re a much more complete unit now.
Looking back on their loss to the Dromiskin men in Haggardstown, Finn believes defensively they weren’t as tight as they needed to be – something rectified in the nine months since.
“We probably weren’t up to scratch that day. We probably left ourselves a bit isolated,” he recalls. “They had O’Hanlon and Mulligan in the forwards. We maybe left our backs a little exposed. It was a Championship semi-final and we went for it. We played pretty attacking stuff and left ourselves open at the back.
“It’s just maybe spotting that stuff a bit earlier. That will come with experience. We need to maybe not go all out at the start. See what’s happening in the game. Finn believes Mathews has helped the side overcome their deficiencies.
“I would definitely say that Jim has brought more of a system in – a defensive system. Where everyone knows you have to work going back, as well as going forward. A big emphasis has been put on defending, which is right. You have to keep out the other team.”
You can hardly call it a defensive style, as they haven’t been left wanting for scores.
“I think we have done a good job of putting the defence first. Work rate is a lot. It’s not just defenders being left to defend. It’s a whole team, everyone’s working that bit harder as a team. I would be confident enough that we have addressed some of the problems that we had last year.
“It does ask a lot of the forwards but it puts pressure on the other team. They’re not able to get into their own rhythm. It’s harder for them to get their scores if they’re being disposed further back.
“Last year, we were leaving the backs to defend. We’re more of a team now,” he continues.
Finn – who was involved with the Louth set-up in the 2016 league promotion – is optimistic ahead of Friday’s throw-in. His team have already accounted for the Termonfeckin men in the league back in May. Summer football is a world away from the dark nights of pre-season.
“You have to look forward to playing football at this time of year. This is what we’ve been trained for since back in the winter. We’re optimistic we can go and get a result on Friday night.”
And beyond. They don’t fear anyone, after all.
For all the very best coverage of local teams in the Louth GAA Championship – previews, match reports, reaction, features, social media updates and more – stick with ThisIsArdee.ie. We’ve got Hunterstown Rovers, Ardee St Marys, Sean McDermotts, John Mitchels and Westerns GFC covered.