By Brendan McTaggart
On the big occasion, you need your big players to stand and be counted. Neil McManus did that and more for the Ruairi’s on Sunday afternoon. A herculean performance from the Cushendall talisman and another man of the match performance. It is no exaggeration to say he covered every blade of grass on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds while he was back to his best from placed ball. A perfect record from frees in a peerless performance from McManus. After two human performances from placed ball, he was outstanding when his team needed it most. Another heroic 60 plus minutes of hurling to help guide the Ruairi’s to their 11th provincial crown.
As the sun set and night fell on a cold Sunday evening in Armagh, McManus was still signing autographs from young admirers while being lined up for interviews. There’s no such thing as sliding into the changing rooms when you put in a performance like he did for his side. When I spoke with him, McManus was full of admiration for the Down champions: “I said it earlier this week. We’re very lucky that Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry play in our league. We knew exactly what we were coming up against there today. They have some smashing hurlers and they have a serious will to win. They go to battle every time they come onto the field and it was tough, tough stuff out there today.
“We probably got the run of the green out there. They dropped a lot of ball in around our net and one flick here and it could have been different but we worked so, so hard.”
The work rate, intensity and desire from Cushendall along with the brilliance of McManus helped Cushendall to the winning line. The Cushendall man said on his sides spirit: “We take huge inspiration from the likes of Donal McNaughton, Sean Delargy and Eunan McKillop. Those guys have a lot of miles on the clock for our club but they’re as fresh as fresh can be.”
Seven of McManus’ nine points came from placed ball. A 100% record on the big occasion. After an indifferent time over frees in the last three matches, McManus said it took a nudge from the Ruairi’s management to reinstate his unflappable confidence: “I work on my frees all the time. I hardly missed won all year up until the last couple of matches but the management put faith in me. The last day I was begging Paddy McGill to come and hit them but they said I was the free taker and stood by me. The belief they showed in me helped. We’re very strong and very together.”
With Conor Carson missing out on the Ruairi’s victory with a burgeoning career as a pilot in its infancy, McManus paid tribute to the Cushendall forward: “Sean (McAfee) took his chance. He’s very strong physically and he took the goal well but my heart goes out to Conor Carson. We wouldn’t have been in an Ulster final if it wasn’t for Carson. He’s been immense. He’s big but he’s so athletic as well. He carried us in the St John’s game and he done the same in the county final as well. He would have relished that today and we’re all thinking about him.”
The match itself was marred with the injury to Arron Graffin. McManus is a life long friend of the Ruairi’s star defender, adding: “Arron Graffin epitomises anything and everything you would want a young player to see. He doesn’t give in. He plays like that in training. He’s horrendous to be marking in training so you can only imagine what he would be like for an Ulster final but he’ll be back. You can’t write Arron Graffin off.”
Another winter of preparing for a tilt at the All-Ireland lays ahead with the Ruairi’s waiting on the outcome of the Galway final between St Thomas’ and Liam Mellows. Essentially, Cushendall are 60 minutes away from Croke Park and St Patrick’s day. It sounds easy when it’s broken down like that but for now, McManus said they’ll enjoy being Ulster champions once again: “This means everything to everybody, it really, really does. It’s a short winter when you’re preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final and this will be no different.”