Brendan McTaggart has a look at the two hurling finals at the weekend with provincial honours on the line…
Two of the three Ulster hurling finals at the weekend have Antrim teams taking to the field in search of silverware. Some out there would be rubbing their hands at the thought, for those in the Saffron Gael, the workload increases. That being said and just like the players and managers involved, there’s nowhere else we would rather be at the weekend. The weekend rounding off with Dunloy and Sleacht Néill but first, the Intermediate decider.
Naomh Eanna v Eoghan Ruadh
AIB Ulster Intermediate Final
Naomh Éanna travel to Dungiven on Saturday for their day/night match in Owenbeg. A 4pm throw in for a match in the middle of November is, interesting to say the least. For me, you either have the throw in for early afternoon and the match is played in daylight or you throw in during the evening. I’m sure there’s rationale somewhere, I just can’t figure where it’s at.
Eoghan Ruadh stand between the ‘Mighty Town’ men and another piece of provincial silverware after Naomh Éanna’s exploits with the big ball 12 months ago. The Dungannon based side were beaten in the Ulster quarter-final last year by Keady under the tutelage of John ‘Smokey’ McKillop. With Colm McGuinness at the reins this year, they have reached the provincial decider for the first time. Victories over Fermanagh and Armagh champions Lisbellaw and Keady, both by four points ensured their path to Owenbeg with forward Damian Casey the leading light for the Tyrone champions. They are far from a one man show however with captain Conor McNally, forward Matthew Mulgrew and midfielder Martin Devlin all catching the eye on their run to Saturday’s decider although doubts remain over whether Devlin will have shaken off an injury in time to make the 15.
Everyone knows the history with the club during the Troubles but now they’re pointing towards a brighter future. The rigours of the Antrim championship with matches against Clooney Gaels, Creggan, Glenariffe and Carey where they showed all their range of skills, desire and tenacity to make the breakthrough at Intermediate level for the first time in the clubs history.
To say Naomh Éanna’s run to the Ulster final has been dramatic would be a massive understatement. A titanic battle against favourites Banagher preceded a massive scare against Bredagh. The Hightown Road men were big favourites to progress but it took extra time to see off the Down champions with two points to spare. Naomh Éanna dug deep in both matches and went to a place they have probably didn’t know they had in their armoury. Their character and resolve were tested and they answered the questions asked with more of their own, they’ll be asked more of the same on Saturday evening and as Sambo told me during the week – a repeat of their performance against Bredagh won’t cut the cheese.
They have leaders, natural leaders at that. Mark Donaghy at centre half has been excellent all season while John McGoldrick, Philly Curran and Ryan Bogue have all had major roles to play throughout the championship. Killian and Cormac Jennings providing moments of magic in attack while Ruairi Diamond, Cormac Ross and Joe Maskey have been superb in an imperious defence who have yet to concede a goals since the county final against the Faughs.
An attacking unit can only flourish if the defence are solid and Naomh Éanna have the foundations in place. An improvement will be required but they have it within them to meet the challenge. It will be their toughest test to date and Eoghan Ruadh won’t be coming to Owenbeg to make up numbers
Dunloy Cuchullains v Slaughtneil
AIB Ulster Senior Hurling Club final
Two years in the making….
Dunloy and Sleacht Néill. The Four Seasons Cup on the line and the highlight of the club hurling calendar in Ulster on Sunday. The Athletic Grounds is being kept for the big ball next weekend, controversial I know it’s hard not to acknowledge that fact, so the Ulster council made an early call for a change of venue. If you believe all the rumours that have been in the mill, one of the sides in Sunday’s final were aware of that and had at least one training session in the preferred new venue before the announcement was made. Sure the banter’s great for these type of games but essentially, Páirc Esler awaits or as it’s been known in the not so distant past, ‘The Marshes’. Not an inspiring name you would think and wouldn’t fill you with confidence of having a good playing surface for the weekend but I’ve been reliable informed the Newry pitch will be in as good as shape as the Athletic Grounds was for the semi-finals. Both teams will settle for that.
All thoughts have been cast back to two years ago when these two sides faced each other in front of over 6000 people in Owenbeg. I think there’s still people walking back to their car from that game, the queue stretched as far as the eye could see along the Foreglen Road. Abiding memories from that game, Nigel Elliott’s early goal and Dunloy taking a six point lead and Shorty nailing a 40 yard free into the roof of the net at the end of the game. What happened in between was less memorable for me but of massive importance for the Cuchullains.
Sleacht Néill started slowly but once they met the challenge, they took over. Gerard Bradley was immense. I can remember watching him against Cushendall in their drawn game in Owenbeg, I think it was five years ago and he was in beast mode for the full game. He went close to replicating that two years ago. Brendan Rodgers aka Ron Burgundy (sorry big man) with the goal that underlined their turnaround and 1-8 without reply to take control. The biggest performance on the say came from Cormac O’Doherty. 11 points over the hour and scores from all angles. He had the knack of being in the right place in the right time and everything he touched turned to gold, or a point as the case may be.
In all, it was a tough lesson to learn but an essential one in the growth and development of the Cuchullains. This match has the feel of being two years in the making. Such was the build up of excitement and atmosphere in Owenbeg in 2017, it’s a shame we’ve had to wait until now to see these two go at it again.
A closer look at Sleacht Néill and a chat with Lavey manager earlier this year, Johnny McGarvey and he told me there isn’t a team in Ulster who will get close to the Robbies this year. Sleacht Néill racked up 1-32 against the Erin’s Own men in the semi-final, the Gulladuff side with not much in reply while Sleacht Néill purposely played the last five or so minutes with 14 men so not to cup tie anyone. Comfort zone personified. “They had boys like your big man Jerome (McGuigan) in full forward who I hadn’t seen before and we just couldn’t handle him. If we got to grips with him someone else stepped up.” Lavey manager McGarvey lamenting about Sleacht Néill’s strength in depth but an insight into the power players they have as well as finesse when it matters.
Against Middletown, they didn’t really have to get out of second, possibly third gear and that’s no disrespect to the Armagh men but Sleacht Néill did what they had to do. It didn’t please Mickey McShane and understandably so. They would have wanted a performance as well as a win but they had to settle for a place in the final, something that alluded them last year after Ballycran dealt them a first Ulster championship loss in three years with 10 points to spare.
For Dunloy’s part, they probably surpassed many peoples expectations with their performance against Ballycran in the semi-final. They were sharp, fast, economic and more like the blazing hurling they took the Antrim league by storm with. The Cuchullains were allowed to dictate the game on their own terms with Ballycran’s reluctance to play a sweeper. I can’t imagine that luxury being afforded to them on Sunday. How Gregory O’Kane’s men deal with that will be the pivotal to their chances. If they can still provide the likes of Conal Cunning, Nigel Elliott, Keelan Molloy and Eoin O’Neill then they’ll do damage.
In defence, Kevin Molloy picked up Rodgers two years ago and I’d imagine it will be the same again on Sunday. Conor McKinley could have the challenge of facing Jerome McGuigan while I’d imagine Kevin McKeague will look to pick up Cormac O’Doherty. Dunloy’s key player and it’s not secret, is Paul Shiels – the Dunloy Pirlo. Sleacht Néill will look to curb his influence but so have plenty who have went before this year. ‘Shorty’ has the knack of being in space to deliver ball into forwards, sitting deep and spraying the sliotar into space for the Dunloy attack to cause carnage. If he reaches his usual high standards on Sunday, the Four Season Cup will be making the journey back to the Cuchullain Village on Sunday.