By Brendan McTaggart
The two senior hurling championship semi-finals at one venue, same day, double header. It’s almost a ‘pinch me’ moment. As the well-known saying goes, ‘Carlseberg don’t do Sunday’s…..’ you know the rest. This Sunday has the potential to be the highlight of the year so far as Páirc Mac Uílin hosts Cushendall and St Johns before Dunloy and Loughgiel with barely time to catch your breath between times.
It’s like a GAA fans paradise and given the relevant sub plots and even the recent past between the sides involved, there isn’t another place on this planet I’d rather be by 2pm for the first ball being thrown in.
Corners ready? Seconds out….
Looking at the first semi-final, Cushendall and St John’s – round three. Four, if you count last year’s replay. A mouth-watering prospect and not a bad way to start a doubleheader. St John’s come into this one with next to no time for preparation. A draw in their pulsating football championship last Sunday before their replay in Coláiste Feirste in midweek has given Mickey Johnston, Tony McNulty and the rest of their substantial backroom team next to no preparation time.
All thoughts of rivalry has to go to one side when you start to think on that alone. All managers and players want an even playing field and it’s fair to say this won’t have helped the Corrigan Park side in the slightest. Speaking with Tony McNulty and he magnanimously stated: “We just have to play the hand we’ve been dealt and that’s that.” Probably the best way of looking at the situation and going forward positively from their own perspective.
Cushendall haven’t fired on all cylinders in the championship this season but, you know it’s there. A heartening defeat, if there is such a thing, just like 12 months ago against Dunloy before a workmanlike performance against Rossa saw them through to this stage. The Ruairi’s are the masters of timing their championship campaigns however, it’s in their DNA. They have a knack of knowing how to get over the line in tight matches and players with that knowledge. There may be plenty of younger faces in the Cushendall starting team and squad this year and last, but they’re coming into a squad with a plethora of experience of these occasions.
The Ruairi’s defence have been their one constant during the championship. Organised, feverish tackling with intensity in abundance. All St Johns have to do is crack that and jobs a good’un.
It’s not that easy and they will know that themselves.
Cushendall got the better of St Johns in last years semi-final when Ryan McNulty had to come off with severe concussion. The Johnnies full back was immense on that day and his tussle with Conor Carson was riveting throughout. McNulty had to go off and with the next attack Cushendall had a goal from their full forward, a goal the Johnnies will feel they wouldn’t have conceded if their full back was on the pitch. It’s all if’s and but’s, the point being made though is Cushendall don’t have the option of Carson anymore or his then backup for the Ulster championship, Sean McAfee. Paddy McGill has been used on the edge of the square and brings something different to the table. For me, he’s best placed further out the field but it’s a quandary for the Cushendall management and one they will have to make a call on. They were reliant on Neil McManus’ free taking ability against Rossa before Alex Delargy put some daylight between the sides with his late goal. A brilliant defence, mind blowing intensity and work rate but an attack who will have to do better on Sunday.
A few onlookers will have notices Shane McNaughton togged out on the bench for the Rossa game. That would make for a Holywood ending but another option would be the return of his cousin, Natty McNaughton. Pivotal for the Ruairi’s county and provincial success last year, an injury plagued season but another game changer and another option if it were required for Ciaran Kearney and his team.
The return from suspension of Shea Shannon will be a huge lift for the Johnnies as will a fully fit Conor Johnston. Not risked on the 4G surface for the football replay on Wednesday night with a view to this match on Sunday. The joys of a dual club, eh?
Conor and Ciaran Johnston are two big game players for the Johnnies and their ability to read games (Ciaran) or dance their way through packed defences (Conor) are a major asset for them. With Peter McCallin and Michael Bradley all in top form, the Johnnies have the attack to cause Cushendall problems.
If the Johnnies can keep their discipline, this may be the year when they make the breakthrough and reach a first county final since 1994. It depends on Cushendall’s ability to go through the gears required from their previous performances.
It’s the last thing anyone from the Corrigan Park club will want to hear given what they’ve had to come through for the past week, but another 60 minutes could be required before a winner is found.
Waiting on the draw for the semi-finals after the Cushendall and Rossa tie, I got the feeling this was going to happen. I suppose there was a 50-50 chance of it but Dunloy then Loughgiel were the first two teams drawn out of the hat and all thoughts were immediately cast back to 12 months previous. Dunloy on the crest of a wave, unbeaten in the league and a solid championship but their wave came crashing around them as they hit the rocky shores of the Shamrock. I know there’s no shore’s around Loughgiel but metaphorically speaking, you get what I mean.
Dugout gate, an unexpected Loughgiel game plan and the Cuchullains rein as county champions was ended as biblical like rain thundered from the heavens on Páirc Mac Uílin. Dunloy versus Loughgiel often brings the unexpected and that came in spade 12 months ago. Delayed throw in, handbags from 10 paces on the half way line and all that before Loughgiel put in an hour of a tactical masterclass to see off their nearest and dearest.
Looking at the championship form so far and the early favourites, haven’t really produced the form they showed during the league. Dunloy weren’t firing on all cylinders against Cushendall and while they were close to their best in the first half against Rossa, it wasn’t the 60 minute performance that they’ll need to see off Loughgiel.
The loss of Deaglan Smith at the end of the league campaign will have hurt their championship preparations. His form during 2019 was nothing short of spectacular and he added another gear to an already incredible forward machine. His absence has brought Chrissy Brogan back into contention for a starting place and he will probably get the nod on Sunday. Normally played on the edge of the square, Dunloy have used him more on the ’45 and it’s been quite an astute move from the Cuchullains. Another ball winner, clean ball and in rucks, Brogan has excelled further out the field. The return of Eoin O’Neill from America will give them more options, and maybe another headache. The men from Pearse Park have an embarrassment of attacking riches while their defence has been settled for the majority of the season. Moving Kevin Molloy to centre half against Rossa was a successful move and one the Cuchullains could call upon once again. The man for all seasons, Paul Shiels will be pivotal once again. He pulls the strings in midfield and his influence will need to be curtailed by the Shamrocks.
Loughgiel’s opening to the championship was something they won’t wish for a repeat off. Four down in four minutes against a rampant St Johns side on their own turf, more like a nightmare than a hurling match for those with a Shamrock persuasion but they had one man on a lone crusade to turn the tide that evening in Fr Healy Park. Liam Watson. The form he produced in that opening 30 minutes was scintillating and he almost singlehandedly brought the Shamrocks kicking and screaming back into the match before having to come off with severe concussion at half time.
For 15 minutes then, it wasn’t happening for Loughgiel. Indiscipline from St Johns may have allowed them back into the game or at least helped them to gain a footing but the way Loughgiel weathered that initial St Johns storm and took control of that contest will have given Hugh McCann and co great confidence. Things weren’t going their way but they found a way. Plan A wasn’t working and maybe ‘plan B’ wasn’t cutting the cheese either so they went for plan c and they got the job done.
Against St Galls they were expected to win and they did but they had further standout performers. Donal McKinley in midfield dove tailed well with Duck McFadden while the cameo off the bench from Shan McGrath further enhanced his reputation within the game. Tiernan Coyle’s move to centre half has helped ease the loss of Damon McMullan and forms what has been an impressive half back line partnership with Seamus Dobbin and Odhran McFadden. Their solidity in defence has been the basis in which much of their season has been built upon.
How this one will transpire? Well, Loughgiel developed the blueprint in how to defeat Dunloy last year. I would imagine they will go for something similar again on Sunday. Having spoken with plenty of hurling men around Loughgiel, they know themselves if they try to go for the flowing game they have been renowned for in the recent past, they will come up second best against Dunloy. Will Dunloy learn from last year and have the game plan to counter Loughgiel’s threat will be the burning question. At different times this year they’ve used different tactics and in one game against St Johns in Dunloy, they changed things three different times throughout the 60 minutes. A good coach doesn’t rest on their laurels and always looks for areas of improvement and in fairness to Gregory O’Kane and his team, they’ve been changing things this season. My guess would be that’s down to events in Páirc Mac Uílin last year.
Either way, it’s going to be a cracking day of championship hurling. Some may have noticed that I haven’t made a prediction so far and that’s for one very simple reason. It hasn’t been a good year for me with that regards and with that said, I should maybe throw an apology to the Johnnies and Cuchullains now but I’ve a feeling it will be a new pairing in the county final in two weeks’ time.