Ballycastle and St John’s in historic Championship opener

Bathshack Senior Hurling Championship

McQuillan’s, Ballycastle v St John’s – Sunday August 12 – Throw In: 5:30pm

Referee: Colum Cunning (Cuchullains, Dunloy)

By Brendan McTaggart

The road to Volunteer Cup glory begins on the north coast on Sunday evening in familiar surroundings, if not unusual circumstances.  Ballycastle and St John’s open the 2018 Bathshack senior hurling championship at Páirc MacUílín in the first match of a two-legged play-off.  Yes, that isn’t a misprint, typo or error and you did read it right.  Two matches with an aggregate score to determine who progresses to the Volunteer Cup group stages.  It’s got a certain champions league feel about it but the stakes are the same.  Win two matches and you’re through.  Just keep winning matches.  That’s the equation for The Town and the men from the Whiterock Road.

After the disappointment of 2017, the men in black and amber have come storming back in 2018.  An unbeaten league campaign sees Ballycastle re-joining the top table of Antrim hurling and has them coming into the championship in good form with high hopes of making a mockery of the bookies.  If anyone fancies a punt on the 17 time Antrim champions, Paddy Power have them 15/8.  Other bookmakers are available.Ballycastle

Good performances in the U21 championship before coming unstuck against Dunloy in the Final will have given Ballycastle a boost and added to the winning mentality.  An emphasis has been made on youth development in Ballycastle since their humbling defeat to Dunloy in the 2017 championship semi-final, as promised by captain Matthew Donnelly while stood outside the Cushendall changing rooms as we spoke of what the future would hold for the Town.  They’ve recouped and put the collective shoulder to the wheel.  Under Chris ‘Bamba’ McAuley and his management team, they have swept all before them in Division Two but it’s a familiar story……

Rewind the clock 12 months and we have a mirrored story but instead of Ballycastle, read St John’s.  The Johnnies have more than held their own in 2018 after an unbeaten 2017 in Division Two and have created the blueprint for Ballycastle to follow – coming into Sunday’s match as 1/2 favourites with Paddy Power.

As things currently stand, they will finish the league not only staving off a return to Division Two but they are looking like finishing in the top four – thus booking a seeding spot for the 2019 championship.  You could say that it’s a job well done by Tony McNulty’s management team and troops.  But there’s something growing under the shadows of Cave Hill on the Whiterock Road.  An awakening of sorts.  A club beginning to realise its potential with countless juvenile successes now coming to fruition at senior level.

Last year St John’s came unstuck at the first hurdle against eventual winners, Dunloy.  Ten points separated the sides but a closer inspection of that Sunday evening reveals the Johnnies came close to ending the Cuchullains renaissance before it even started!  It was only in the last quarter that Dunloy saw off the St John’s challenge but the seeds had been sewn and the roots developed for a return to competitive hurling for St John’s.  In 2018 the recovery has began to develop the green shoots to catch the eye of the Corrigan Park faithful once again.St Johns 2

So to Sunday – The Championship and a return to The Manager’s View on The Saffron Gael..

Manager’s View from Ballycastle….

Bamba McAuley heads an eight strong team in charge of Ballycastle.  From selectors to physios, statistics and strength and conditioning, the Ballycastle men have all basis covered.  A sign of the changing times we live in with hurling and a sign that the Town are serious about how and where they develop their undoubtedly talented youth.

We spoke Donal Cunningham and the Ballycastle selector told us how they’ve went about their business in 2018: “There had to be a change of mindset but an honest approach as well.  Division Two isn’t the handy wee league some people might have you believe it is and at the end of the day, we weren’t in this Division by accident.  We went out and gave our opponents the respect they deserved but we’ve worked hard to get to where we have this year.  Promotion from Division Two was our main priority this year but this is the Championship and the Championship is engrained in this clubs DNA.  We’ll be underdogs but we’re going to give this a good rattle.”

In recent times Ballycastle have been affected with the lure of America and Australia on their players.  The development of youth has almost been thrust upon the men in black and amber and Cunningham this year has been their silver lining: “We had a decent run in the U21’s and a good result in the semi-final raised hopes before the Final.  We didn’t really do ourselves justice and that’s taking nothing away from a very talented Dunloy side but on Sunday we could be starting with as many as nine from that team.”  Cunningham continued: “I don’t want to sound dismissive of the other teams in Division Two, but it was perfect to blood these younger players.  Division One, you just don’t get that leeway.  You can’t afford to take your eye off the ball and we’ve been able to lay the foundations while maintaining a winning mentality.”

It’s not often the bookies get these matches wrong.  Ballycastle are underdogs but Cunningham says his side are more than happy to have that mantle going into Sunday’s championship opener: “The tag (underdogs) sits well with this team in my eyes.  They already feel like they have a point to prove and being the underdogs will allow them that freedom to go out and do so.

“We know what St John’s are capable off.  We know their strengths and if anything, they are a year ahead of us in terms of developing their talented youth in their ranks.  They have created the template that we want to follow in 2019 but this is the championship, albeit not in its usual format.”

The two legged nature of this preliminary round tie has everyone travelling into the unknown for Sunday and Cunningham isn’t a fan: “It takes away from the magic of championship hurling if I’m being honest.  We’ve had back doors and all the rest in the past but there’s nothing to beat knock out hurling.  We’ve seen the likes of the Super 8’s and that this year but knock out and championship should always go hand in hand.”

With the first match being played on home turf, Cunningham doesn’t see any benefit for either side: “It’s just so different to anything either of us will have encountered before.  Does it make a difference?  I’ll probably be able to answer that better at 7pm on Sunday but we know after Sunday that it will only be half time and whatever the result, it should set up a good game in Corrigan for the return leg.”

Manager’s View from St John’s….

The Johnnies have impressed on their return to Division One in 2018.  Tony McNulty’s side have built upon the foundations laid in 2017 and learned from past mistakes.  As the saying goes, a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it and St John’s are on that curve.  We spoke with the St John’s manager on what his thoughts were on the league but firstly, their preseason goals: “We started the year looking to maintain our Division One status with a top half finish.  Now it looks like we’re going to finish in the top four of the Antrim teams in the Division.

“We’ve had a good season in terms of competing in Division One.  You look at our match against Loughgiel that finished a draw.  In previous years St John’s teams would have dropped their heads and got beat but these lads put their head down and got something out of the game against a very talented Loughgiel side.”  McNulty continued: “We’ve been mindful of the player commitments in recent weeks.  Dunloy turned us over the last time we played but we had seven or eight boys missing with one eye on this match and dual commitments.”

The 2017 championship for St John’s threw up the tie of the quarter-final where they pushed Dunloy all the way before the Cuchullains pulled away in the closing ten minutes.  10 points separated the sides at the final whistle but the Dunloy celebrations after the hour told the full story.  St John’s came close to causing what would have been an upset.  They had Dunloy under the cosh in the third quarter before Gregory O’Kane’s men pulled away, much like two years previous when they had Cushendall all but beaten.  Both would go and lift the Volunteer Cup after their reprieve.  Make of that what you will.

Sunday brings the new format and McNulty is a fan of the two-legged nature of the preliminary tie: “We’re treating this as nothing less than a championship encounter.  We’re not thinking on anything other than Sunday and winning a championship match.

“I’m a huge fan of this format if I’m honest.  This group of players have only had one championship match per season for the last five or six years but if everything goes to plan, we’ll have these two matches, hopefully two in the league and who knows after that.

“We’re taking nothing for granted though and looking no further than this match.  Ballycastle in Ballycastle is a difficult match for anyone and we’ll need to be on our game to get the result we want.

“It gives these lads more championship matches and nothing beats that.  Nothing comes close to matching that championship intensity and the more times these lads can experience that then it will help their development and help them reach their potential.”

Success at youth doesn’t automatically translate into senior success as any club in the county will testify.  It’s not as simple as that but it looks like St John’s have found the ‘winning’ formula with McNulty urging his side to make the most of their opportunity: “We’ve had success’s at Feile level, U16 and minor in recent years.  That success is now starting to bare fruit at senior level.  We’ve been trying to tell these boys that now is their time to make an impression.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer of taking nothing for granted but we’re in a good place, playing good hurling and looking forward to the start of the championship on Sunday.”

Verdict….

Ballycastle have impressed in how they have gone about their business this year.  They’ve dealt with the disappointment in 2017 in the right way while being able to develop their talented youth in Division Two.  They will relish the opportunity to take a Division One scalp but I think St John’s will be too strong.  The Johnnies have been superb on their return to the top table and on their day, they can take the scalp of any of the teams in the county.  They ran out of steam against Dunloy last year, I don’t see that happening on Sunday.  St John’s to take a comfortable lead to Corrigan Park.

St John’s to lead at half time.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.