2006 was to prove a great year for the hurlers of Clooney Gaels and marked their arrival as serious contenders on the Antrim hurling scene. This week we look back at that momentous season and begin their journey to a place in an All Ireland junior final in Croke Park with a look back at their Antrim final win over old adversaries Rasharkin at Slemish Park Ballymena.
Antrim Junior Hurling Championship final
Clooney Gaels 3-18 St. Mary’s Rasharkin 1-9
Played at Slemish Park, Ballymena the 2006 Junior Hurling final was an eagerly awaited contest as the hurlers of St. Mary’s Rasharkin met up with old rivals Clooney Gaels from Ahoghill. The Clooney men last lifted the title way back in 1989 and featured names like O’Connell, Graham and Downey amongst others and these names were prominent a generation on where sons, cousins, nephews and brothers had taken hold of the reigns to emulate the spirit of the 89 team.
With so much at stake both sides struggled to find their rhythm at the beginning. Clooney’s Donal Graham was the first to settle when he sent over his first point two minutes into the contest. Donal’s point was followed by a frustrating passage of play as both sides locked horns in a battle for supremacy with little scoring chances being created.
It was Aidan Graham who broke the deadlock when he got hold of the ball, slotting over a point and effectively bringing order to the game. Rasharkin, still scoreless at this stage got to grips with matters and worked the sliothar up field and when a foul was committed 30 yards out Brendan McMullan stepped up and took his score in the 12th minute.
Clooney’s Declan Scullion took a quick puck out and the Gaels gathered possession and worked the sliothar up field where it was fed into Gerard Graham who put the Clooney men two in front. Rasharkin were finding it hard to settle and were giving away to many unnecessary frees and with Gerard Graham in top form Clooney went three points clear at the end of the first quarter.
Donal Graham got the defining score of the first half when a long ball was dropped in around the Rasharkin goalmouth. Rasharkin’s keeper, Kevin Collins had judged the sliothar to be going wide but as it fell short Donal Graham was on hand to flick it to the net. The Graham clan were now making their presence felt and when Aidan found his cousin Gerard he edged the Ahoghill side further ahead.
Their opponents had been on the back foot but responded through Declan McKay who pulled one back as he converted a free but the industrious Sean O’Connell hit back immediately for the Clooney men to maintain their advantage. Rasharkin looked to be in trouble and desperately needed to register some scores and experienced campaigner Christopher Hasson did just that with a fine point in the 25th minute and substitute Liam McCart followed with another to give them fresh hope.
In the last five minutes of the half however Clooney Gaels went into overdrive and began to display great teamwork throughout the field and when the towering figure of Declan Graham got hold of the sliothar he took his point, effectively opening the floodgates. The Ahoghill men finished the half with a flourish notching up four unanswered points through Gerard Graham, Sean O’Connell, Joe Downey and Aidan Graham as the moved into a 1-11 to 0-4 half time lead.
UP AGAINST IT
The Rasharkin men looked up against it going into the second half as they went in search of some much needed scores. Daniel O’Mullan took a fine point one minute in from the restart but any attempt at a comeback was effectively squashed when Aidan Graham fired home Clooney’s second goal in the 35th minute.
The Clooney Gaels, now in full flow, turned on the style and big Neil O’Connell picked off a superb point. The Rasharkin defence was now in disarray and continually gave away frees with Clooney’s Gerard Graham gratefully excepting as he added another two to his tally. When Donal Graham and Sean O’Connell added two more from play it was effectively the point of no return for Rasharkin.
To their credit they kept battling away however and in the last quarter Daniel O’Mullan and Declan McKay added two points to Rasharkin’s tally before Aidy Scullion fired a consolation goal past his brother Declan in the Clooney nets with ten minutes remaining.
This score only served to put a better reflection on the score line as Donal Graham responded for the Gaels with another goal and a point almost straight away. Rasharkin added a further two points from frees just before the end but the last score of the game came from Clooney’s John Friel who fired over a massive 70 yard free leaving the final score, Clooney Gaels 3-18-Rasharkin 1-9.
This was a superb performance by Clooney Gaels who took control right from the start and were never troubled by a Rasharkin side who battled hard but just could not cope with the pace, power and superior stick work of their opponents.
They were rock solid in defence where Bernard Graham was outstanding at centre-half-back and showed great determination, as did Pearse Close and Francis Neeson who never put a foot wrong. At mid-field Dominic Neeson covered massive amounts of ground and partner Joe Downey showed great skill and determination. Captain Sean O’Connell led from the front and took a fair few knocks in the process. Star man up front was Donal Graham who contributed not less than 2-4
TRIBUTE TO COACHING
This team have shown vast improvement over the championship campaign and this is due in no small way to the hard work done by coaches, Brendan Kelly and Harry Graham and indeed of all the coaching staff at the Clooney Gaels club. Great credit is due to them.
Clooney Gaels: Declan Scullion, Pearse Close, Brian Kelly, Francis Neeson, Neil O’Connell, Bernard Graham, John Friel (0-1), Joe Downey (0-1), Dominic Neeson, Declan Graham (0-1), Sean O’Connell (0-4), Gerard Graham (0-5), Donal Graham 2-4, Aidan Graham 1-2, Gerard Kelly.
Subs: Malachy Friel, Dessie McGuigan, Barry Drain, Diarmaid Graham, Stephen O’Connell.
Later this week we will follow Clooney Gaels on their journey to Ulster success in 2006 and their progress to the All-Ireland final in the same year.