Cushendall’s first title without Wee John

Antrim Senior Hurling Championship Final 2023

Ruairi Og 1-20 Loughgiel 1-19

Cushendall fan Colm Thompson takes look back at Sunday’s final

As James McNaughton’s 90 yard free in the eighth minute of injury time tailed to the right and wide the Cushendall defenders jumped for joy. Referee Colm Cunning blew the full time whistle as Dall keeper Conor McAlister drove the last of his customary Exocet missile poc-outs down the pitch. If ever there was a demonstration that sport can be cruel it was McNaughton’s final effort at the posts falling inches the wrong side of the uprights. His performance during the previous 70 odd minutes of high octane championship combat had been magnificent, 1-10 was his tally for the game in an outstanding performance, perhaps the best we’ve seen for the Loughgiel number 11.

Loughgiel’s James McNaughton who was the game’s top scorer with a goal and ten points

In a game where Ruairi Og lead by seven points on two separate occasions in the second half and where they threatened to pull well clear it was testament to the never say die spirit of the men in red and white that they oh so nearly forced extra time. However history, they say is written by the victors and on Sunday the victors were Ruairi Og Cushendall. A fifteenth title since 1981 and the first without the legendary Wee John McKillop. He was the only ever present throughout the previous fourteen and the high regard in which John was held by the current team was demonstrated by the hanging of his framed tracksuit top in the Dall changing room before the game. As he accepted The Volunteer Cup Dall captain Neil McManus poignantly and rightfully dedicated this triumph to the memory of our greatest ever member. “This one is for Wee John.” “He is always with us.”

John saw the Ruairis win championship titles in Loughgiel, Glenravel, Dunloy, Ballycastle and Casement Park, but on their first final win at Corrigan Park he was sadly no longer with them.

The legend John McKillop

   The game had started well for Loughgiel with James McNaughton hitting three points for The Shamrocks with a solitary Paddy Burke point for Cushendall in reply. However the game took its first twist just as Loughgiel looked like establishing dominance. Joseph McLaughlin fed Neil McManus, the angle was tight but where many other players might have chanced a drive at goal Neil showed all his experience to send an unexpected pass to the unmarked Fergus McCambridge who finished to the net. Initially the Shamrocks responded with Christy McGarry and Declan McCloskey to the fore they wrestled back the lead. But Cushendall hit a purple patch and thanks in no small part to Joseph McLaughlin (0-3) and Niall McCormick(0-2) they outscored Loughgiel 0-8 to 0-2 in the second quarter to take control at the short whistle on a scoreline of 1-11 to 0-9. 

Fergus McCambridge celebrates after scoring the Cushendall goal that turned the early tide

   Cushendall dominated the opening exchanges but thanks to a combination of stout defending by Loughgiel and some wayward shooting they only added a further point from Fred McCurry when more scores were available. Paul Boyle at the other end had a pile driver brilliantly saved by Conor McAlister to deny him a goal. Paddy Burke sent over another point for Cushendall as the favourites threatened to pull away. But like a prize fighter Loughgiel rose from the canvas and came out swinging again. Ryan McMullan, Shan McGrath and Paul Boyle also pointed to reduce the Dall lead to four. Burke again, McManus and midfielder and man of the match Ryan McCambridge steadied the Dall ship with a point each in response as the game headed down the home straight. With five the margin and the game entering injury time Loughgiel were awarded a free 25 yards from goal. James McNaughton stood over the ball and he blasted for goal but his effort rose agonisingly over the bar. Cushendall couldn’t make the ball stick upfield following Conor McAlister’s poc out. Loughgiel again drove a long ball into the Dall square and in the confusion McNaughton reacted quickest to finish to the net to unbelievably leave the minimum between the teams. The Shamrocks sensationally were given one last chance to rescue a game that at one stage seemed well beyond them. McNaughton, along the sideline at the far side of the field, 90 plus yards from goal launched a hail mary, however agonisingly it tailed inches to the right and wide. Final score Ruairi Og 1-20 Shamrocks 1-19.

The Loughgiel team, almost half of whom were making thier first appearance in a senior final, gave a great display

   It wasn’t a classic by any means but it will matter little to Cushendall who claimed The Volunteer Cup for the first time in five years. What the game lacked in quality at times it more than made up for with sheer tension and drama. Perhaps the decisive factor was the greater spread of scores in the Dall team with eight players weighing in with scores. Ryan McCambridge was awarded man of the match for his all action performance at midfield, he contributed two points from play, won a number of clean catches from poc outs and broke through Shamrock lines at will. His midfield colleague Fred McCurry and defender Paddy Burke ran him close with accomplished showings and up front teenage corner forward Joseph McLaughlin added to his growing reputation with a fine effort which yielded three points from play in his first senior final. For Loughgiel James McNaughton was sensational and if anyone didn’t deserve to be on the loosing team today it was him. He was well supported by captain Declan McCloskey who played the sweeper role to a tee.

Ryan McCambride, Declan McCloskey and Paddy Burke, all of whom played starring roles in a memorable final

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