ACHL Division 1
Wednesday August 9
Pearse Park, Dunloy
Dunloy 2-17 Loughgiel 2-20
By Brendan McTaggart
Pearse Park Dunloy played host to a classic encounter between the ‘Auld Firm’ of north Antrim on Wednesday evening. Exhilarating, breath-taking, moments of brilliance and pure drama, epic. In the end it was Loughgiel who celebrated a three point victory over their nearest and dearest rivals to keep alive their hopes of retaining their league title, and end the Cuchullains quest for that honour.
At half time it was advantage Dunloy. Playing with the aid of a strong breeze in the opening 30 minutes, the Cuchullains held an eight point lead at the short whistle. Their defence was keeping the Loughgiel attack in check with the Shamrocks far from their fluent best in the first half and while Dunloy weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders themselves, they looked much sharper with Nigel Elliott, Conal Cunning and Eoin O’Neill looking lively.
It was O’Neill who scored the only goal of the half in the 11th minute. Cunning doing the hard work down the right before finding O’Neill in space with the young Cuchullain giving DD Quinn no chance in the Loughgiel goals.
Any Shamrock attacks were fleeting in the opening exchanges with Eddie McCloskey scoring their first from open play in the 24th minute, adding to a Shay Casey free. The same duo repeated their fetes in the closing stages but scores from Nigel Elliott and a Nicky McKeague free gave the home side a lead of 1-9 to 0-4 at the short whistle.
What these two teams produced in the second half can only be described as a roller coaster of adrenaline charged emotion. As the half drew towards the end, it had all the excitement and passion of a Championship game with both teams refusing to accept defeat. Momentum swinging like the proverbial pendulum as these two great rivals produced an epic half of hurling.
The home side started the half well with two Nicky McKeague frees answering white flags from Casey and McAuley but it was the Shamrocks who started to go through the gears first. 11 unanswered points in the space of 12 minutes had the Dunloy men reeling and looking to their sub bench for the change that would break the surge of Shamrock momentum.
Midfielder Paul Shiels almost hauled the home side back into the game but his goal bound effort fizzed to the wrong side of the post for the Cuchullains but Conal Cunning’s first point of the match in the 48th minute finally got the home side firing again. Elliott and Cunning split the posts again to bring the sides level once again in the 54th minute before Dunloy scored their second goal and swing the pendulum once more. Substitute Keelan Molloy delivered a long ball into Cunning who managed to evade the shackles of the Loughgiel defence and fire the sliotar beyond Quinn to give the home side a three point lead with barely five minutes remaining.
Loughgiel regrouped and mounted another assault on the Cuchullains defence. McAuley scored his sixth point of the match and half to give the Shamrocks an instant reply to Cunning’s goal and while ‘Coby’ scored his third point of the match from a free, Loughgiel found another way back into the game. As the Dunloy defence swarmed around Eddie McCloskey, the Loughgiel man found Shan McGrath in space. The young Loughgiel forward still had work to do but he riffled his shot to the top corner to give Ryan Elliott no chance in the Dunloy goals. All square again and who the momentum was with now was anyone’s guess. Both sides refused to accept defeat in the closing stages and while the Shamrocks drew ‘first blood’ with Eddie McCloskey firing over, ‘Shorty’ Shiels produced the score and moment of the match to equalise in the first minute of injury time. A score that would have graced any field in Ireland and a score that deserved to give the Cuchullains at least share of the spoils but Loughgiel and Shay Casey had other ideas. Dan McCloskey picked Casey out unmarked at the back post and the Loughgiel man managed to get the slightest of touches to the sliotar to guide it to the back of the Dunloy net and give his side a three point lead.
A hammer blow for the Cuchullains and when Donal McKinley split the posts moments later to give Loughgiel a four point lead the Cuchullains challenge was all but over. Eoin O’Neill scored his third point of the match in reply but it was the Shamrocks who were celebrating after a pulsating game of hurling.
Whoever said ‘The League is for playing in’ clearly forgot to tell these sides. An epic battle between two sides who have high Championship hopes. Could this be a dress rehearsal of the Final later in the summer? There is still plenty of hurling and teams who will have their own say on that outcome but if it is, we’ll be in for a treat. An epic game that neither team truly deserved to lose.
Dunloy: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin; James McKeague; Oran Quinn; Kevin McKeague; Conor McKinley; Kevin Molloy; Paul Shiels; Ciaran Elliott; Nigel Elliott; Gabriel McTaggart; Nicky McKeague; Eoin O’Neill; Chrissy Brogan; Conal Cunning
Subs: Keelan Molloy for G McTagart (44 mins); Ally Dooey for N McKeague (49 mins)
Loughgiel: DD Quinn; Paul Gillan; Neil McGarry; Ronan McCloskey; Tony McCloskey; Damon McMullan; Odhran McFadden; Mark McFadden; Seamus Dobbin; Barney McAuley; Eddie McCloskey; Donal McKinley; Dan McCloskey; Shay Casey; Shan McGrath
Subs: James McNaughton for S McGrath (58 mins)
Dunloy: Conal Cunning 1-3 (2 frees); Eoin O’Neill 1-3; Nicky McKeague 0-4 (3 frees); Paul Shiels 0-3; Nigel Elliott 0-3; Chrissy Brogan 0-1
Loughgiel: Barney McAuley 0-6 (4 frees); Shay Casey 1-3 (3 frees); Shan McGrath 1-2; Eddie McCloskey 0-4; Donal McKinley 0-3; Seamus Dobbin 0-1; Tony McCloskey 0-1
Referee: Owen Elliott (Ballymena)