Middleton booked final spot in tough conditions

In 1988 Cushendall hosted Cork in Munster champions Middleton in the All Ireland Senior Club semi-final at Pairc Mhuire. Conditions were tough and the Cork men even tougher as in a real battle.

This is the Ballymena Chronicle Report of the game that day

CUSHENDALL …… 2-5                              MIDDLETON ………. 3-11

Cork and Munster champions Middleton qualified for the final of the All Ireland Club Championship when they beat Antrim and Ulster champions Cushendall by 3-11 to 2-5 in the semi-final at Pairs Mhuire, Cushendall. The Munster champions turned in one of the best displays of hurling seen in this county for long and many a day and overall possessed just too much skill, strength and speed for Ruairi Og, who to their credit never gave up the fight and fought tooth and nail to the final whistle.

From goalkeeper Ger Power to full forward Colm O’Neill, the “Magpies” were a team of real class and from the eighth minute when right half forward Vincent O’Neill finished a long John Fenton ball to the net, they never looked in trouble.

Torrential rain that had fallen before the game had just abated as the teams took the field, but it left the well prepared Cushendall pitch soft and slippery, and overall, not suitable for hurling.

From the throw in Cushendall went on the attack and in forty-five seconds full forward Danny McNaughton pointed a 20-metre free to give his team the lead.

Brendan McGaughey hooks Middleton corner forward G Fitzgerald

Two minutes later Middleton hit back with a point from their rangy corner forward Kevin Hennesy to square the match and two minutes later the Cork side would have taken the lead had it not been for a fine save by Cushendall goalkeeper Ciaran McNaughton from a long Tadg McCarthy ball.

Cushendall were faring well in these opening minutes but they lacked the finishing touch and chances of scores which would have boosted their confidence went abegging.

They looked set for a goal in the sixth minute when centre half forward Alister McNaughton pulled on a ground ball 20 metres out but Middleton’s keeper Ger Power dived to his left to turn the ball round the point for a 65. James McNaughton pointed the 65 to put the Ruairi Og back in from but inside a minute Middleton were level again when their centre half forward John Hartnett broke through for a point.

Two incidents inside the next minute started Cushendall’s slide. The first was on the edge of the Middleton square where full back Mick Boylan and Cushendall full forward Danny McNaughton were involved in an off the ball incident which saw McNaughton knocked out cold and left him in a stupor for the remainder of the game. The other was Vincent O’Neill’s goal from Fenton’s long centre and really it was the beginning of the end for the Ruairi Og. Four minutes later Middleton’s corner forward Ger Fitzgerald fire the ball to the Cushendall net and within a minute John Fenton pointed a free from thirty metres to put the “Magpies” seven points clear.

Danny McNaughton pointed a close in free in the fifteenth minute to close the gap to six points but a well taken point from full forward Colm O’Neill three minutes later opened the gap to seven again.

Conditions were far from suitable for hurling on a dark, wet day and soft pitch.

For the remainder of the half Cushendall played their best hurling of the match and with their back line of James McNaughton, Leonard McKeegan and Terence McNaughton playing some great stuff they had Middleton under a lot of pressure. It must have been heart breaking for this stout-hearted trio to see their efforts come to nothing as repeatedly they left the ball in around the Middleton square only to see it returned just as quickly. During that spell Cushendall shot three wides and missed a great chance of a goal when corner forward Laurence McAlister “fresh aired” a John Carson cross on the 14-metre line.  As it was, it was Middleton who found the target when the centre half back pointed a free to give the Munster men a 2-5 to 0-3 half time lead.

Middleton came out with all guns blazing in the second half and after just two minutes they had a goal disallowed for a square ball infringement. However this was but a temporary respite for Cushendall as two minutes later a combination of good work by Middleton full forward Colm O’Neill and a rare slip by Cushendall centre half back Leonard McKeegan put corner forward Kevin Hennesy in the clear just 10 metres out and from that range goalkeeper Ciaran McNaughton had no chance.

The Magpies turned the screws and inside the next six minutes they added four more points, three from the sweet striking Fenton and one from Hennesy to effectively kill off the match as a contest. Not that Ruairi Og gave up the fight far from it.

  They hammered in a goal through corner forward Alister McGuile in the fourteenth minute but Middleton hit back swiftly with points from a Fenton free and a real beauty from Ger Fitzgerald.

John Fenton send over a Middleton point from a free.

  As in the first half, Cushendall produced their best hurling in the final twelve minutes when they had scores from  and a James McNaughton 65, a Leonard McKeegan side-line cut and a goal from Laurence McAlister following a goal-mouth scramble but it was a case of too little too late, as there was  no was they were going to catch the Munster men.

 Overall Cushendall need not feel too disappointed as they were beaten by a very fine team and I doubt if even at their very best they could live with such high-class opposition. It was testimony to just how entertaining the Middleton team were by the fact that the large crowd stayed on to the final whistle even though the result was inevitable a long time before that.

It is hard to single out ant individual on the Middleton team as they performed as so well overall as a unit but in Denis Mulcahy, Sylvie O’Mahony, Edser Cleary, Sean O’Brien and Pat Hartnett they had defenders of real class. Tadg McCarthy had a fine hour at midfield and while Fenton was nowhere near as prominent from play his superb striking was no doubt a vital part of this Middleton victory.

Up front John Hartnett and Vincent O’Neill (in spells), Kevin Hennesy and the gifted Colm O’Neill were the stars.

 For Cushendall, goalkeeper Ciaran McNaughton could not be faulted for any of the goals while in the full back line Brendan McGaughey and Brendan McAlister (in the second half) were best.

Team mentor Tommy Campbell remonstrates with Middleton full back Boylan after Danny McNaughton got laid-out in an off the ball incident

 The half back line were again Cushendall’s strongest sector and though they were never dominant throughout they all turned in fine displays. Dominic McKeegan had a fine game at midfield while in a disappointing forward line Sean McKeegan, Laurence McAlister and Alister McGuile (in the second half) were best.

  Middleton scorers – John Fenton (0-5), Kevin Hennesy (1-2), Vincent O’Neill (1-0), Ger Fitzgerald (1-1), Sean O’Brien (0-1), John Hartnett (0-1), Colm O’Neill (0-1)

  Cushendall scorers – Alister McGuile (1-0), Laurence McAlister (1-0), James McNaughton (0-2), Danny McNaughton (0-2), Leonard McKeegan (0-1)

   Middleton – G. Power (Capt.), D. Mulcahy, M. Boylan, S. O’Mahony, E. Cleary, S. O’Brien, P. Hartnett, T. McCarthy, J. Fenton, V. O’Neill, J. Hartnett, J. Boylan, G. Fitzgerald, C. O’Neill, K. Hennesy

 Cushendall – C. McNaughton, B. McAlister, S. McNaughton, L. McKeegan, T. McNaughton, D. McKeegan, F. McAlister, J. Carson, A McNaughton, S. McKeegan, L. McAlister. Subs, B. McNaught for D. McNaughton 48 mins: D McNaughton for J. Carson 49 mins

            Referee – Gerry Kernan (Offaly)

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