By John Curly McIlwaine
It was a memorable day at a brand new venue for Antrim hurling on Sunday as Dunsilly hosted the two Senior Hurling semi-finals, and I have to say hosted them very well. On an early Autumn day, borrowed from the Summer we should have had, they came, – the majority of them for the very first time – to see the Antrim Centre of Excellence, hidden from view by the Antrim to Ballymena railway, and most of the people I spoke to went home impressed. It is far from perfect, but in the situation this summer has left us in it fitted the bill very well and the Antrim County Board have to be applauded.
However the venue was secondary on a day of great drama. Dunloy v Rossa and Loughgiel v St John’s gave us games as good as anything we have seen for years. It ended with a North Antrim derby final next weekend, but it could just as readily have been a West Belfast one, had lady luck been a little kinder to the city men.
When Dunloy sprung from the traps with their magical forward line scoring with style and grace we thought it was going to be a procession, but once Rossa got over the early nerves, and their mentors realised they needed to shore up their defence to counter such a potent attack, they clawed their way back. When Mick Armstrong, running on about two and half cylinders, got a touch on a long James Connolly delivery into the Dunloy ‘square’ and flashed the sliothar past Ryan Elliott high into the net it was game-on!
Just four in arrears at the break and Dunloy short of their great leader Shorty Shiels, and the breeze at their backs in the second half there was genuine hope. Those hopes received a bit of a setback when Dunloy opened with three points from their fluid forwards but they steadied the ship and set about their task again…. and with Aodhan O’Brien a tower of strenght they edged their way into contention to trail by just two at the second half water-break.
Their goal from substitute Conall Shannon probably came too soon and you knew that Dunloy would respond. Rossa’s growing list of casualties, (borne out of a hectic championship schedule in both codes) gradually took its toll. To see Stephen Beatty and Jamie Connolly have to hobble off was sad but they had gone to the well once too often over the past number of weeks and it finally caught up with them.
Rossa were still in contention as the game went into injury time when super sub McMahon took full advantage of Woody’s brilliant block, to seal it for the champions.
The fans went home, Dunloy delighted – the rest crestfallen. The ‘good room’ was cleaned and polished and the hand sanatiser dispensers refilled for the next set of guests. Loughgiel and Dunloy fans trickled in and talked about the game that had gone before, watched, not from Dunsilly’s grassy bank, but on Antrim Facebook’s excellent coverage where Johnny Tosh’s burgeoning reputation took another step forward under the guidance of the master Jerome Quinn. Antrim’s answer to Keyes and Grey
We almost felt it would be too much to ask for another great game, but if anything we got one that was even better.
St John’s have come so close in semi-finals in the past to be cruelly denied at the death, we thought they must surely get a break some of these days….but lady luck was having none of it. Domhnal Nugent, big, strong, skilful and brave as a lion, had his power reduced by a bad arm injury during the first half that he was effectively playing with one arm. We watched the subs bench thinking he must surely be called ashore, but Domnhal was having none of it. With his left arm heavily bandaged he used his hurl like Roger Federer uses his racket, though Federer never had Tony McCloskey marking him. He ended with 3-3 and while there may have been some dispute over the third one, team mate Conall Bohill wasn’t going to argue.
His marker for most of the game, Tony McCloskey, had to retire in the second half as he found out you may be able to continue with one arm, but it doesn’t work on one leg. Loughgiel plugged the gap though and they set about their business of winning the match. They thought they had in normal time only to be dragged back into the fight by Oisin Donnelly’s late equaliser.
Extra time was Loughgiel’s and their talismen Watson and McGarry delivered the killer goals. Both have been through a lot since their finest hour, when they thrilled the red army in the 2016 final in Ballycastle, but they proved they still have something to offer. McCarry was only introduced as a sub in the 53rd minute but he showed he still has that poachers touch with a goal from a narrow angle in extra time, and while Watson was obviously ring rusty he is still a threat to any defence.. and his goal was superbly taken. There were also other old hands who put their shoulder to the wheel when needed like Eddie McCloskey and Odhran McFadden.
Among the young guns James McNaughton was a bit off with his frees at times, but he still notched up 12 points and that is a good day’s work in anybody’s books, while in defence TC, Damon McMullan and Declan McCloskey had great shifts.
By this time next year we hope that Covid 19 is all behind us and it is likely that we won’t see another hurling semi-final at Dunsilly, certainly in its current state. I hope I’m wrong in that (Dunsilly…not the Covid) for it has great potential and hopefully the next phase of development will see it used a lot more. If we older followers don’t have another chance to get back we are left with the memories to two classic games and a day from the ages.