Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final:
Cushendall (Antrim) 4-28 Portaferry (Down) 3-19
Neill McManus has played many starring roles for his home club Cushendall over the years but Sunday’s showing in Armagh Athletics Grounds must surely top them all. Despite scoring eleven points with almost sixty minutes gone his side trailed Down champions Portaferry by four with time almost up. He cut the gap to three with a well taken point but his teams cause still seemed hopeless as Portaferry, who had dominated the second half showed no signs of easing their grip on the game. The four minutes of time which had been signalled by the match referee were almost up when the Ruairis gave it one last go. After a real battle for possession around the Portaferry penalty area McManus won possession and the panic that ensued a Portaferry defender dragged him down, and match referee Tarlach Conway awarded a free just outside the twenty metre line and suddenly the chance was there to save the day.
The Down champions lined the goals to face up to the free but the Cushendall captain drilled the ball low off the ground and the sliothar came off the inside of the post for the score that brought the game to extra time.
Suddenly it was game on again as the sides lined up for 10 minutes each way extra time, and when Portaferry got the first two scores they must have felt they were gaining the upper hand again. However the game was turned on its head once again when teenage corner forward Joseph McLaughlin, who had returned to the fray after being substituted near the end of normal time, suddenly took control of the game. The St Killian’s College student cut in from the left of the town end goal and fired a low angled shot past Portaferry goalkeeper Pearse Smith to give his team back the lead they would not relinquish.
McLaughlin, who had been awarded the Young Hurler of the Year at the Devenish Antrim Club All Stars evening in Belfast two nights earlier, was suddenly ‘in the zone’, and added a further 1-1 before the extra time interval to give his team a four point lead. He was then involved in a brilliant length of the field move which ended with Alex Delargy grabbing his team’s third goal and McLaughlin added goal number four before time was up to end an incredible game.
You had to feel for the Down champions at the end. For long periods of normal time they held the upper hand, though it has to be said their cause was aided by a couple of almighty defensive blunders which yielded two goals. They had some outstanding performers, none better than centre back Caolan Taggart and substitute Niall Fitzsimmons who was magnificent in the second half of normal time.
As time ticked away it looked odds on that they were going to repeat their 2014 Ulster final victory over the Ruairis, but McManus was there to snatch victory from their grasp.
Cushendall appeared to be in a good position at the end of the first half in normal time when they went in just level, after playing ‘up the slope’ in a competitive opening half. The Antrim champions soon levelled and were three points to the good when the first of two defensive blunders turned the game on its head.
Portaferry were now the dominant team and they played some great hurling to move five clear at a stage. The gap was down to four as extra time approached and it would have taken a brave man to predict a Cushendall win, but McManus kept his team in touch before delivering the killer blow in injury time to save the day.
When the teams re-emerged McLaughlin was back in the fold, a brave call by Cushendall manager Brian Delargy, but it proved a master stroke. The skilful corner forward suddenly found his form and the help of the maestro McManus he steered the Ruairis to a twelve point win
Ruairí Óg: N McManus 1-14, 1-6 frees, J McLaughlin 2-5, A Delargy 1-0, F McCambridge 0-2, E McQuillan 0-2, Scott Walsh 0-1, P Burke 0-1, E Campbell 0-1, F McCurry 0-1, R McAteer 0-1.
Portaferry: N Milligan 2-0, E Sands 1-2, D Sands 0-4, T McGrattan 0-5, 4 frees, P Doran 0-3 frees, F Turpin 0-2, C Taggart 0-1, N Fitzsimons 0-1, M Conlon 0-1
Ruairí Óg: C McAlister, P Burke, l Gillan, M Burke, Scott Walsh, E Campbell, A McNaughton, F McCurry, R McCambridge, R McAteer, N McManus capt., F McCambridge, A Delargy, S McAfee, J McLaughlin.
Subs: E McQuillan for R McAteer (45), C McNaughton for S McAfee (53), R McCollum for A McNaughton (53), P McGill for F McCurry (58), Stephen Walsh for E Campbell (76), R McCambridge for Scott Walsh (77), F McCurry for N McManus (78)
Portaferry: P Smyth, D Mallon, T Murray, R Smyth, B Trainor, C Taggart, C Savage, M Conlon capt, S Conlon, P Doran, F Turpin, E Sands, T McGratan, N Milligan, D Sands.
Subs: N Fitzsimons for P Doran (36), C Fay for S Conlon (57), C O’Prey for E Sands (58), E Sands for M Conlon (69), C O’Neill for E Sands (71), D Mallon for C Savage (75),