Bathshack Senior Hurling Championship – Semi-Final Replay
Cushendall 2-16 St Johns 3-11
Brendan McTaggart reports from Paírc MacUílín, Ballycastle
When the vast crowd packed into Paírc MacUílín on Sunday afternoon, there was an air of anticipation before throw in. There always is before any championship semi-final but this felt different. After the first match two weeks ago and the dramatic ending, we were left waiting excruciatingly for two weeks to find who would be joining Loughgiel in the 2018 Final but my word wasn’t it worth the wait.
Cushendall edged St Johns with two points to spare after another hugely entertaining and no less dramatic hour and more of hurling. Their place in the decider was only settled with a free in the sixth minute of injury time by substitute Emmett Laverty but just like 14 days previous, the Ruairi’s were pushed to the pin of their collar by a gallant and luckless Johnnies side.
After seven minutes, it looked like the consensus around the county had got it right. Cushendall started like a house on fire and had opened up a six point lead while St Johns were metaphorically still in the changing rooms. They couldn’t get to grips with the Ruairi’s juggernaut and the prospects of another tight championship encounter was somewhere between bleak and non-existent.
St John’s Michial Dudley runs at the Cushendall defence
However the Johnnies have shown in 2018 that they are the real deal. They are a team to be reckoned with and on Sunday they showed the determination and character that goes hand in hand with championship winning teams. They reeled the Ruairi’s in to leave just two points between the sides at the short whistle, thanks largely to the talents of Conor Johnston and after eight minutes of the second half they had taken the lead. Barry McFall’s goal upping the stakes and sending the atmosphere at Paírc MacUílín to fever pitch and thoughts turned to the possibility of a first City side in the championship Final since St Galls in 2014 and Rossa in 2004.
The Ruairi’s showed their championship pedigree by steadying their ship with Neil McManus, Natty McNaughton and Conor Carson to the fore but they were rocked with five minutes remaining with Peter McCallin’s major giving the Johnnies the lead once again.
The Cushendall response this time was emphatic. Two goals from Man of the Match Conor Carson opened a five point lead going into injury time for 13 time county champions only for St Johns to roll the dice one more time. Micheal Bradley splitting the posts from distance before Conor Johnston landed their third major deep in injury time.
With the game in the melting pot the Ruairi’s were awarded a free from close to the ’65 and substitute Emmett Laverty eased the nerves within the Cushendall support.
Arron Graffin blocks down a shot by St John’s full forward Michael Bradley
Both teams were forced into changes to their starting 15. Cushendall were without the services of Eoghan Campbell but started the replay with a team that was close to the 15 that finished the first match. Natty McNaughton, Alex Delargy and Martin Burke earning their shirt for their efforts the last day out. St John’s were without Donal Carson but also elected to draft in Gerard Cunningham with Simon McCrory starting as well as a raft of positional changes from the first encounter.
All the changes seemed to be counter-productive for the Johnnies though as Cushendall steam rolled the Corrigan Park side in the opening exchanges. McManus, putting thoughts of his misadventures with placed ball the last day to one side and was back to his imperious best, landing two huge frees in the opening minutes while scoring his first from play after Fergus McCambridge also opened his account. A brace of points from Ryan McCambridge and Cormac McClafferty followed to leave six between the sides in the seventh minute, all while Cushendall ‘keeper Eoin Gillan still hadn’t touched the sliotar.
The first St Johns point came in the 11th minute, Barry McFall splitting the posts as the Johnnies continued to look for a way of settling into the semi-final. Conor Johnston landed a brace of frees either side of a long range point from Francis McCurry and when Ryan McCambridge and Michail Dudley swapped points in the 15th minute, four points separated the sides with Cushendall doing all the early running.
St Johns finished the half well though and managed to bring the Cushendall lead down to two points by the short whistle. Conor Johnston landing two points (one free) with his brother Ciaran also getting in on the act with another trademark free from distance while the Ruairi’s only had a point from Fergus McCambridge to show for their efforts in the second quarter.
It was another half of hurling that had big hits, big tackles and loads of intensity. Both teams played on the edge and while space and time was at a premium, goal chances were created throughout the first half. McFall was denied by Paddy Burke in the 11th minute while Alex Delargy’s effort was cleared off the line by Ryan McNulty.
The match was still in the melting pot despite the Cushendall dominance of the first half. The Ruairi’s hit double the wides of St Johns in the opening 30 minutes with a few frees going astray from McManus but they started the second half in the same fashion as the first, this time Natty McNaughton and McManus (free) landing the scores in the opening three minutes to open a four point lead once again.
The Ruairi’s wouldn’t score for another five minutes which in the grand scheme of the match wasn’t long but the Johnnies manages to take the lead in that time. A brace of frees from Conor Johnston preceded the first goal of the semi-final. Barry McFall finishing a slick move in the 38thminute to give St Johns the lead for the first time in the match.
The Ruairi’s response was resembled everything they have become through the years. They remained calm while becoming more clinical with the passing and execution. A trio of scores from Paddy McGill and McManus (two frees) came on either side of a point from Conor Johnston to leave the Cushendall men ahead by the minimum mid-way through the second half.
With the game becoming less structured and more frenetic, space and time was becoming more readily available. McManus took his tally to 0-7 for the match before St John’s dealt another hammer blow in the 55th minute with Peter McCallin scoring their second goal. The St Johns man turning two Ruairi defenders before rifling his shot low past the advancing Gillan in the Cushendall goals.
Conor Carson receives the Saffron Gael Man of the Match award, a new hurl kindly sponsored by Martin Hurls, Randalstown.
The Cushendall response was epic. They were awarded a free from close to their own ’65, still within McManus’ range but his effort dropped short with the sliotar falling into the waiting crowd. Carson got a touch to the dropping ball and suddenly it was in the back of Simon Doherty’s net. A huge goal for his side and just reward for the Cushendall man who had been going through a mountain of work during the match in a magnificent tussle with St Johns defender Ryan McNulty.
With the match entering injury time Cushendall thought they had finally extinguished the flickering flame of the St Johns championship when substitute Eunan McKillop found Carson in space with the ‘Dall forward landing his second goal in five minutes at the business end of the semi-final.
The Johnnies found a second wind though with Micheal Bradley splitting the posts from distance before Conor Johnston collected a lose ball in the Cushendall defence and fired their third major of the match to leave one between the sides. Cushendall’s nerves were eased moments later however when Emmet Laverty split the posts with a 60 yard free with the last poc of the game to seal the Ruairi’s sixth championship final in succession and the small matter of a meeting with Loughgiel in two weeks time.
Neil McManus seems certain to score here but Simon Doherty somehow got his body in the way to deflect the ball out for a 65
Cushendall: Eoin Gillan; Arron Graffin, Paddy Burke, Martin Burke; Sean Delargy, David Kearney, Francis McCurry; Paddy McGill, Neil McManus; Conor Carson, Donal McNaughton, Ryan McCambridge; Fergus McCambridge, Cormac McClafferty, Alex Delargy.
Scorers: Neil McManus 0-7 5 f’s); Conor Carson 2-00; Fergus McCambridge 0-2; Ryan McCambridge 0-2; Francis McCurry 0-1; Cormac McClafferty 0-1; Paddy McGill 0-1; Donal McNaughton 0-1; Emmett Laverty 0-1 (1 f).
St Johns: Simon Doherty; Conall Morgan, Ryan McNulty, Aidan McMahon; Stephen Tierney, Ciaran Johnston, Gerard Cunningham; Simon McCrory, Jim Peoples; Barry McFall, Peter McCallin, Shea Shannon; Michail Dudley, Michael Bradley, Conor Johnston.
Scorers: Conor Johnston 1-7 (4 f’s); Barry McFall 1-1; Peter McCallin 1-00; Michail Dudley 0-1; Micheal Bradley 0-1; Ciaran Johnston 0-1 (1 f).
Referee: Mark O’Neill (Armoy)
Pics by John McIlwaine