Saffron Gael scribe Brendan McTaggart looks back on 2018

2018 in matches….

By Brendan McTaggart

A season that began on the Shaw’s Road and finished in Abbotstown. I’ve tried to count the games but after four attempts I’ve come up with different numbers, so I’ll leave it at a ‘plethora’ of matches. A year that has seen me travel to Clare, Galway, Laois and Dublin to name a few along with the length and breadth of the county. Here’s a run-down of my journalistic year with a few of the highlights thrown in for good measure.

Enniskillen Gaels Matthew Dixon keeps his eye on the ball despite getting in a tangle with Ballinascreen’s Christopher Logan in the final of the St Paul’s tournament on New Year’s Day

The first match of the year while most people were laying with a hangover or reaching for second helpings of Turkey. New Year’s Day and the Shaw’s Road for the final of the St Pauls minor football Ulster cup for the Derry Post with Enniskillen Gaels defeating Ballinascreen in the final. A trip to Armagh for the Saffrons against Tyrone in the McKenna Cup later in the week then Parnell Park for Antrim’s Walsh Cup match against the Dubs on the Saturday.

Antrim centre back Matthew Donnelly plucks a high ball out of the air during his team’s opening league battle with All Ireland champions Galway in Salthill. For over sixty minutes the Saffrons looked set to cause and upset until a later Galway flourish send them home empty handed. Pic by John McIlwaine

The undoubted highlight of January and one of my highlights of the year came on 28th January and Antrim’s opening match on their return to Division 1b. No one gave them a prayer of getting anything from a match against reining All-Ireland champions with Galway priced at 1/100 for the win. Glorious failure it might have been but its been a long time since I felt such pride and joy to be an Antrim fan. Hearing the press box of the Salthill Stadium go very quiet then a collective sigh of relief from the Galway journo’s at the end was quite amusing….if only we had held on for a famous win.

Eamon O’Colm (15) watches as his shot beats Lavey goalkeeper Eoin Mulholland for Gaoth Dobhair’s opening goal in the Paddy McLaron U21 final in Creggan. Pic by Paddy McIlwaine

Most of February was devoted to Creggan and the superbly run Paddy McLarnon U21 tournament where Lavey dared to dream and Gaoth Dobhair fine-tuned their skills and started a ground-breaking year. A trip to a cold Portlaoise was a highlight – albeit another losing journey but reporting on Antrim under the floodlights in an old venue like that of O’Moore Park was something different.

It’s a long, long way from Clare to here!
Creagh Concrete’s James McNaughton in action against Atlantic Aviation of Clare in the Inter Firms All Ireland Final on a rainy Friday night in Sixmilebridge. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

March brought something different. A trip into the unknown and a chance to find out just how long it is from Clare to here. A day trip to Sixmilebridge with Creagh in search of an All-Ireland but came home empty handed with Atlantic Aviation/Molex taking the honours. Another unhappy journey but another memorable one nevertheless.
I’m starting to see a pattern here – at this rate of going a few lads will be wanting me to sit my ground in 2019!
A playoff defeat to Laois, again, saw Antrim relegated to Division 2a for this coming season. A short lived stay in 1a but a memorable one all the same. Near misses against Galway, Dublin and Laois with the match in Dunloy definitely the one that got away. The league’s got underway in March with a trip to Ballycastle for the McQuillan’s facing Naomh Éanna my first outing of the year – the first step for the Town’s route to Division 1 for the coming year. A Dunloy victory over Loughgiel in a cold and rainy Fr Healy Park started April off perfectly…..although the Shamrocks would ultimately have the final say over the Cuchullains at the business end of the year. Further club matches involving Rasharkin, St Pauls, Portglenone, Aghagallon, St John’s and Lámh Dhearg and it was good to have the league up and running again. Before they would have to stop. A story for another day.

Oooopppss! Nigel Elliott holds his head, as does his cousin Ryan in the Antrim goal, after the Dunloy flyer ran the wrong way after winning the ball from the throw-in at the start of the Meath v Antrim McDonagh Cup opener in Navan. The Antrim midfielder put the ball inches wide of his own posts which in the end cost his team a score as Carlow sent over the resultant 65, but Nigel bounced back to hit a hat-trick of goal at the right end in a man of the match display. Pic by John McIlwaine

May and the Joe McDonagh Cup. A trip to Meath and I wasn’t the only one who travelled to Navan with more than a hint of trepidation. Nigel Elliott almost scoring an ‘own point’ in the opening second did little to help the feeling but in a strange sort of way, it turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Elliott’s performance that day is something that will live long – from ‘dear jaysus’ to ‘h’on the lad ye’ in the space of 70 minutes. 3-2 for Elliott and a winning start to the inaugural McDonagh Cup. Life was good.

Antrim captain Neil McManus celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal in a memorable McDonagh Cup win over Carlow at Corrigan Park, but it was a bad injury that the Ruairi Og man received in a cowardly off the ball incident at was the main talking point when the dust settled. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

A week later brought the Battle of Whiterock. Antrim may have won that battle but Carlow would end up winning the war. Four red cards and a 50 minute second half in sweltering heat and Antrim were two from two. Someone pinch me. This was unchartered territory while covering Antrim and I got to a stage where I was beginning to dream of a day in Croker once again. The Laois happened again. Third time in 2018 Antrim would face the O’Moore County and they were pipped at the post in Dunloy. Two from two became two from three but the dream was still there.
A few club matches were thrown in with Cushendall against Dunloy and matches involving Rasharkin and Rossa also covered. The month finished with an Ulster championship defeat for the Antrim footballers to Down in Páirc Elser although the U20’s performance against the Mourne County in the curtain raiser was a highlight. A hugely entertaining game with the young Saffrons unlucky not to come away with a win.
June began with a trip to TEG Cusack Park and Westmeath in the McDonagh Cup. Another luckless performance where the Saffrons mounted a savage comeback but came up short. Dubious decisions seemed to be mounting against the county hurlers and a hair line square ball decision to rob Conor McCann of a goal in the second half did little to help the Antrim management team – Sambo with the quote of the year: “What the f**k do we have to do to get a break out there.”

Antrim joint manager Terence McNaughton was bemoaning his team’s luck after defeat by Westmeath in Mullingar. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

Our fate in the McDonagh Cup wasn’t in our own hands but we needed a victory over Kerry in Cushendall before looking at Westmeath’s match against Carlow. Neither went in Antrim’s favour and from the possibility of reaching the McDonagh Cup Final, Antrim now faced a relegation play-off such was the nature of a hugely competitive tournament.
The club leagues took over once again and Loughgiel’s annual McGarry Cup tournament saw Thurles Sarsfields and Ballyboden St Enda’s travel with the hosts inviting Dunloy as well. The ‘old firm’ doubled up their league match as a semi-final with Dunloy edging the Shamrocks in a close encounter and the Cuchullains defeating the Dublin champions in a hugely entertaining match in Fr Healy Park. A match that had everything and an exhibition fitting for the occasion.

Dunloy’s Keelan Molloy in action against Ballyboden St Enda’s in a splendid final of the Liam McGarry Cup tournament in Loughgiel. Pic by John McIlwaine

Club games involving Portglenone and Glenavy, Dunloy and Aldergrove with the U21 hurling championship getting underway – the club scene was once again back in full swing. June ended with Antrim retaining their McDonagh Cup status with a comfortable win over Kildare in the Athletic Grounds. A match neither felt should have been played with Antrim in a no win situation but it was job done and the end of the county season for another year.
July and my first taste of Cushendall vs Loughgiel. The Shamrocks coming out on top but the Ruairi’s would have the final say over their rivalry taking Feis honours two weeks later in Slemish Park, Ballymena. The club scene and I saw matches involving Ballygalget, Dunloy, Carey, St Paul’s and Cushendall.

Loughgiel celebrate after beating Dunloy in a cracking Senior Reserve final in Pearse Park early August. Pic by John McIlwaine

August began with Loughgiel edging the Cuchullains to take the Reserve Championship in Pearse Park before the senior championship took feet and the introduction of the new format. St John’s and Ballycastle in a preliminary round while I went to the other side of the Bann to cover some matches. Limavady, Ardmore, Sean Dolan’s and Doire Colmcille in a double header in Celtic Park. A great venue and something we are lost for within our county. A league match between Dunloy and Gort na Mona saw ‘Poggy’ McHugh scoring a late goal to keep the then feint hopes of a Gort promotion alive. A goal that would prove to be a pivotal moment for the Turf Lodge men’s season. A contender for game of the season between Creggan and St John’s along with Dunloy and Portglenone in the minor football championship. Derry championship again with Doire Colmcille and Ardmore on a Friday night before Clooney Gaels outgunned the Biddies in the Intermediate Championship and Dunloy vs Cushendall in the first round of the league format of the senior championship.

PJ O’Connell was one of the leading lights for Cloney Gaels as they swept aside the challenge of Cloughmills in the Intermediate Hurling Championship in Cushendall. Pic by John McIlwaine

A football league game for good measure between the Cuchullains and Tír na nÓg for good measure to end the month with the Randalstown men looking good for promotion at that stage.
September and Championship time again with Dunloy and Sarsfields along with Creggan and Rasharkin in a double header in Pearse Park. A dander to Drum against Drumsurn in Ballerin in the Derry Junior football championship on a Saturday night – sure what else would you be at? Junior hurling championship the following day and my first sight of Cushendun as they saw off the spirited challenge of St Pauls in the semi-final. The following weekend saw a trip to Glenavy for Con Magees versus O’Donnell’s where the Belfast side lost out in the second half on a blisteringly warm Saturday.

Ciaran Johnston showed nerves of steel as he sent over a late free to earn St John’s a second bite of the cherry against Cushendall in the SHC semi-final in Dunloy in September. Pic by John McIlwaine

The two senior hurling semi’s the end of the month was my highlight of the year. Cushendall and St John’s in an epic match in Dunloy. Late scores, more than a hint of an upset and a bit of handbags on the pitch and in the crowd. Great stuff. They would need another day. Ballycastle the following day as Cushendun finally winning the Junior hurling championship and Dunloy versus Loughgiel. The champions dethroned with Dug-out Gate delaying the start and James McNaughton ending the Cuchullains rein. Heart breaking and not one for the purists but no less dramatic in a gripping contest.
October began with a rearranged match – another late Gort goal and Turf Lodge’s finest had progressed to the semi final at the expense of perennial finalists Dunloy. Two championship defeats in the space of three days – enough to make a journo throw the pen in the fire. The game goes on.
All Saints and Gort on a Saturday in Ahoghill with a contender for goal of the season – Dermot McVeigh’s first half major helping the Gorts to the intermediate decider.

Crowded house!
Tomas McCann’s superb goal ended the hopes of a rejuvenated St Gall’s in a fantastic SFC game in Creggan in October. The goal of this, or any other season.
Pic by John McIlwaine

A few miles away Tomás McCann ended the goal of the season debate in the game of the season as a goal from the Cargin man from a 25 yard free meant the Erin’s Own side edged their great rivals from the Milltown Row, St Galls to reach the senior football decider.
Mid October and a Sunday double header where the large crowd in Páirc MacÚilin were treated to two fine contests. The minor decider between Loughgiel and Cushendall needed a replay while Cushendall and St John’s put on another epic battle. The Ruairi’s edging it but the Johnnies had reintroduced themselves at the top of Antrim hurling in an excellent year for the Corrigan Park side.
Naomh Éanna took the honours in the Intermediate Football Championship with a strong second half against a gallant Gort na Mona side but the Turf Lodge men were winners even in defeat. Forming a guard of honour for the Hightown Road side. Beaten but not bowed, a class act.
The build up to the senior football decider was always going to be special. Two neighbours with the ultimate prize on the line and not to mention bragging rights. A yarn with Cargin captain from ’74 and Packie McGuckin failed to tell me that his brother and fellow Saffron Gael scribe Geordie McGuckin laid on the winning goal on the day. Geordie has since told me Packie was ‘at his work’. Brotherly love.

McCann’s inc. The Antrim Senior Football final was not one for the
connoisseur but it was a memorable occassion as two South West neighbours contested a final for the first time. Once again hosts Ahoghill were superb in their hosting of the game. Pic by John McIlwaine

The match itself wasn’t anything to write home about. The crowd in Fr McGuigan Park was huge and the atmosphere beforehand was incredible. I thoroughly loved being involved on the day with the crowds appetite whetted by Dunloy putting on a footballing clinic to claim their second minor football crown in three years and seeing off St Galls with a bit to spare. Cargin and Creggan was a game of chess with neither giving an inch but a piece of brilliance by the Rolls Royce Michael McCann took the McNamee Cup to Toome once again.

The Gort’s hard work paid off as they capped a good season by winning promotion to Division 1 with a win over Moneglass at Enright Park. Pic by John McIlwaine

The fourth weekend in October would see me attending Gort against Moneyglass on the Saturday with the Turf Lodge men achieving the dream of promotion to division one as champions. Just reward and a rendition or two of Disco Land still echoes and raises a smile when I cast my mind back. The Sunday saw a trip to Ballycastle for the hurling finals. Dunloy would edge Loughgiel in the minor decider with Seaan Elliott scoring the winner and Cushendall overcoming Loughgiel in the senior decider – Conor Carson and Paddy Burke, yes, Paddy Burke scoring the decisive goals on the day.

Cushendall celebrate their win over Loughgiel in the Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final at Pairc MacUílin, Ballycastle in late October. Pic by John McIlwaine

Interviews galore with Chris Kerr announcing his inter-county retirement had me working a few late shifts but equally worth it. It’s the business end of the season and the hours don’t seem quite so long.
November brought an Ulster championship journey for Cushendun where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at the final hurdle against Monaghan side Castleblayney. The ‘Blayney repeated the same against John Mitchell’s to make the All-Ireland semi-final just to prove it was no fluke on the day.

It all ended in tears for the Emmet’s in Armagh as Castleblayney came with a late burst but it could not take away from what was a great season for Cushendun which saw Chris Dornan put them back on the map. Pic John McIlwaine

Cushendall saw off the challenge of Ballycran to make the All-Ireland semi against St Thomas’ of Galway. A match where they grinded out the result but a match that will be remembered for the luckless Arron Graffin suffering another major injury to his ‘good’ knee. A lesser mortal would have hung up the hurl, Graff has his sights set on Parnell Park and the 9th February. The U21 football championship and a new league format began before the A and B championships would start while the Cuchullains made the Ulster minor hurling final only to come second to their nemeses once again, Kevin Lynch’s. The U21 championship went to the business end with the Cuchullains playing Moneyglass…..twice. The first an epic drawn game with the second just as free flowing but Dunloy having enough to make the knockout stages.

Big Joe Maskey started the year as a hurling hero for Antrim in the NHL and ended it as a footballing colossus as he powered St Enda’s to a historic win over Mullahoran in the Ulster Intermediate Football final on a cold December night in Armagh.
Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

Naomh Éanna became the cream of the Saffron county in the first weekend in December. Adding the Ulster intermediate crown to the county title with an impressive victory over Mullahoran in the Athletic Grounds. I’ve never seen Frank Fitzsimmons as happy as I did that night – thoroughly delighted for Russ and Pat Hughes. Two of the good guys within the county and deserve the credit they’ve got since…..not forgetting the Naomh Éanna players as well.
A return to St Pauls for the minor football tournament and Derry champions Bellaghy proved to be too strong for Dunloy in the preliminary round before a midweek match under the floodlights and a first match for me in Colaiste Feirste. Superb venue and facilities and a Dunloy win to reach the decider against St Brigids.
The match was cancelled from the Saturday, scheduled for the Tuesday. A trip planned to Abbotstown for Antrim against Wicklow on the Sunday only for someone to deny me the chance of watching Dunloy in the U21 final. Match moved to Sunday. Thanks for that one guys.
Abbotstown and an Antrim win in the 2019 Kehoe Cup… 2018. I don’t get it either. James McNaughton dazzling on the day and the journey begins once again.

The year ended for Brendan watching James McNaughton score 14 points for Antrim in Sunday’s Kehoe Cup win over Wiclkow at Abbotstown, Dublin. Pic by John McIlwaine

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