By Brendan McTaggart
Pics by John McIlwaine
The Ruairi Og’s travel to the Athletic Grounds on Sunday in search of more silverware. With the Volunteer Cup safely residing in Páirc Mhuire for the year, Cushendall take on Down champions Ballycran for the Four Seasons Cup and the Ulster crown.
It will be two weeks since Eamon Gillan’s men overcame the challenge of Loughgiel to take their 14th county title with three points to spare over the Shamrocks and on Sunday afternoon in Armagh, they’re vying to keep the roll going.
Cushendall full back Paddy Burke showed he could just as easily play in the forwards with his cooly finished goal in the Antrim final win over Cushendall.Pic by John McIlwaine
In the aftermath of the county final, the Ruairi’s captain Paddy Burke was the talking point for all the interviews. Why was the Cushendall full back 80 yards up the field to get on the end of Conor Carson’s pass for the Ruairi’s first goal that day? The Cushendall captain joked: “It’s long been forgotten about to be honest. The craic was good at the time and we enjoyed the couple of day’s celebrations but we soon knuckled down. The lads have kept their focus on Sunday’s match.”
On the county final itself, the Ruairi’s defender said the Antrim champions have identified areas for improvement ahead of their meeting with Ballycran: “You don’t really think about the intricacies too much. Me and Martin were saying the other night that it was four points to two after ten minutes and I suppose we kicked on but we were wasteful enough in our chances on the day and that’s something we’ve had to look on.” Having tasted defeat for the last two year, Burke joked: “It’s not ideal but after losing a couple it certainly made victory all the more sweet.”
Sunday’s opponents for the Ruairi’s caused an upset in their semi-final when they dethroned the much fancied Derry champions and reining champions, Slaughtneil. The Ardsmen had 10 points to spare over the Oak leaf side and the Ruairi’s captain told us he wasn’t surprise: “It wasn’t that much of a shock. We’ve played Ballycran a lot in the league, we know each other inside out and they would have been well fired up for that match.”
Much has been said in recent weeks of the undeniable spirit and incredible attitude within the Ruairi’s camp. It’s taken them from the brink against St John’s and helped them overcome Loughgiel in the county final. Burke, a student in his last year at University gave us a hint on where this spirit was created: “There has been three or four boys who have career threatening injuries. It’s the third time Arron Graffin has had trouble with the same knee, Martin’s neck injury at the start of the year and Del’s hand injury. Seeing those lads come back from those injuries puts things into perspective but it takes a certain mentality to comeback from them and when other players see that, it gives them a lift. They see what other boys are going through to be part of this and they know they have to either stay on their game or take their game to a new level.
“It’s not easy when you’re in the gym and watching the rest of the boys go through a full training. You want to be part of it but when you’re there it drives you on.”
Ballycran were the first side from Down to win the Ulster championship, this year marking 25 years since that day in Casement Park. The Ruairi’s don’t need any further reminding that they can’t take Sunday’s match for granted. They just have to look to four years ago when after coming through a semi-final replay against Slaughtneil, they were defeated by Portaferry in the provincial decider. Burke told us their recollections of that match in Owenbeg still lingers: “That match is still fresh in our memories and it’s definitely something we’re wary off. We don’t want the same thing happening again that’s for sure.
“We’ve played each other plenty of times in the league over the last few years and know each other inside out. Off course it’s beneficial playing someone who you know and there shouldn’t be any surprises but you can look at it the other way – we won’t hold too many surprises for them either.
“We know Sunday’s going to be a tough match. It always is when you play Ballycran. Rarely do you get things all your own way against them.”
Conor Carson’s physical presence will be badly missed in the Cushendall attack.
Burke told us the Ruairi’s have a fully fit squad ahead of Sunday’s decider but doubts remain over the availability of Conor Carson. The Cushendall forward has been instrumental in the Ruairi’s run to the Ulster final with a man of the match performance in the semi-final replay and a gargantuan performance against Loughgiel in the county decider. If he is unavailable, it’s a major blow for the Ruairi’s: “We’re not sure what’s happening there at the minute. I know they’re trying to get something sorted but he’s only started the training. It may not be possible to fly him back for the match.
“If he can’t play he’ll be a massive loss. He’s been superb the last few matches for us and has been the difference with his ability to get ball, create for others and give us another option.
“Apart from Conor, everyone else is available. We have the off niggle here and there but when it comes to playing in the Ulster final, you play through it.”
The Down champions led from start to finish in their semi-final win against Slaughtneil with a brace of goals from James Coyle coming either side of majors from Niall Breen and Christopher Egan. The ‘Crans 10 point win made a mockery of the bookies 10/1 offering before the sliotar was thrown in at Corrigan Park two weeks ago and shows that on their day the Ardsmen are a match for anyone and more. Cushendall will start as favourites and I expect them to add to their 10 provincial titles to go clear in the roll of honour for the Four Seasons Cup but don’t expect any landslide victories.Paddy Burke in action against Loughgiel’s Shay Casey during the county final.