St Brigid’s manager Benny O’Brien and Padraig Pearses bainisteoir Pat Flanagan after last year’s Hodson Bay Group Roscommon SFC final, which was won by Brigid’s.

Local rivals Brigid’s and Pearses both have questions to answer

Kevin Egan

In 2019, a knockout quarter-final was exactly the fixture that Pádraig Pearses needed. Pat Flanagan was in his second season at the helm of the club, their form and talent was unquestioned, but they needed the psychological boost of a win in the bank against one of their traditional rivals.

St Brigid’s were in something of a transition at the time, but the Kiltoom club in transition would still beat most opposition, and sure enough the game in Ballyforan – arguably the best senior club fixture that was played in the championship that year – went down to the wire before Pearses prevailed.

The mental strength harvested from that win was crucial in their upcoming games against Boyle and Roscommon Gaels, and so Pearses laid to rest a 60-year tradition of being close, but not quite close enough.

In 2020, St Brigid’s were the one opponent that Pádraig Pearses couldn’t handle. Form-wise, the men in red were nowhere close to where they were at 12 months previously, and this was particularly evident up front where Hubert Darcy and Paul Carey weren’t making the waves one might expect of players on the fringes of the county panel.

Experience and game management got them through a tough test against a relatively young Clann na nGael side, a team that was still heavily reliant on Donie and Cathal Shine. But a county final in the Hyde against a young Brigid’s team that was utterly fearless and deceptively strong in the physical exchanges meant that the Woodmount club couldn’t paper over the cracks any longer.

Earlier this year, the cracks were so visible that the team looked eligible for Mica redress. We didn’t realise in round one how much Western Gaels had fallen; the four-point margin of defeat against Clann was hugely flattering to Pearses; and even after making a fast start against Strokestown, they still allowed themselves to be reeled in.

A turkey shoot against a depleted Tulsk side was therapeutic,however, and against Boyle we saw real shades of Pádraig Pearses, version 2019.

David Murray is leading the defence, Paul Carey is in the best form of his life and that has opened up more room for Hubert Darcy, who in turn is beginning to get back to the player he can be. Let’s not forget that while St Brigid’s were the better team in the 2020 final, they won by five points, and Hubert Darcy scored 0-1 out of three goal chances.

Eoin Colleran, Daniel Farrell, Conor Lohan – these are young players who still have some work to do to get to the level where they can make a strong contribution at senior club level - but they can put in valuable 15 and 20 minutes shifts. That too makes a huge change from last year, where the club had no depth whatsoever. Add in a fit and sharp Mark Richardson, and we know Pearses will be better.

It’s not as easy to be as confident about St Brigid’s. Unquestionably, their best performance of the year was last time out against Strokestown. Eddie Nolan’s return clearly transforms the side; Brian Derwin is playing far better than the number of scores he’s putting on the board might suggest; and Ben O’Carroll is now thriving in the responsibility of carrying the bulk of the scoring load.

Given his rugby commitments, Ruaidhrí Fallon is unlikely to be much of a factor and while Benny O’Brien said after the Strokestown game that the door will always be open for Fallon in the club, the oval ball looks like his main priority at the moment.

In terms of match-ups, there are warning signs too. Cathal Compton took a while to understand how to play Peter Domican, but by the second half of the quarter-final he caused the veteran full-back a world of problems. Take away his shoulder injury that left him playing the final quarter with one good arm, and Strokestown might have been able to set up a very tense finale.

Compton is probably a very slight upgrade on Darcy in terms of overall ability, particularly when attacking a high ball on the run, but there are a lot of similarities in their style too, and Darcy will have studied Compton’s template very closely.

Darragh Sheehy is the most likely option to pick up Carey, and here too, Brigid’s may have a problem. Paul McGrath has been incredibly influential for the champions but Lorcán Daly will be as perfect a match for him as any team will possess, so matchup wise, Pearses have a lot of cause for optimism.

Yet for reasons that are harder to measure, harder to break down by ingredient, the champions could be poised for a big day. After beating St Croan’s, O’Brien said his team were still a long way short of where they needed to be. In Ballyforan, the pieces were beginning to click into place. Shane Cunnane is improving for every minute he gets on the field, Brian Stack is waiting to explode, and one of these days soon, Brian Derwin is going to shoot the lights out.

Returning to Dr Hyde Park could be the catalyst that sets the champions, and this championship, on fire.