McManus: “We wouldn’t have been in an Ulster final if it wasn’t for Carson”

By Brendan McTaggart

On the big occasion, you need your big players to stand and be counted.  Neil McManus did that and more for the Ruairi’s on Sunday afternoon.  A herculean performance from the Cushendall talisman and another man of the match performance.  It is no exaggeration to say he covered every blade of grass on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds while he was back to his best from placed ball.  A perfect record from frees in a peerless performance from McManus.  After two human performances from placed ball, he was outstanding when his team needed it most.  Another heroic 60 plus minutes of hurling to help guide the Ruairi’s to their 11th provincial crown.

As the sun set and night fell on a cold Sunday evening in Armagh, McManus was still signing autographs from young admirers while being lined up for interviews.  There’s no such thing as sliding into the changing rooms when you put in a performance like he did for his side.  When I spoke with him, McManus was full of admiration for the Down champions: “I said it earlier this week.  We’re very lucky that Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry play in our league.  We knew exactly what we were coming up against there today.  They have some smashing hurlers and they have a serious will to win.  They go to battle every time they come onto the field and it was tough, tough stuff out there today.

“We probably got the run of the green out there.  They dropped a lot of ball in around our net and one flick here and it could have been different but we worked so, so hard.”

The work rate, intensity and desire from Cushendall along with the brilliance of McManus helped Cushendall to the winning line.  The Cushendall man said on his sides spirit: “We take huge inspiration from the likes of Donal McNaughton, Sean Delargy and Eunan McKillop.  Those guys have a lot of miles on the clock for our club but they’re as fresh as fresh can be.”

Seven of McManus’ nine points came from placed ball.  A 100% record on the big occasion.  After an indifferent time over frees in the last three matches, McManus said it took a nudge from the Ruairi’s management to reinstate his unflappable confidence: “I work on my frees all the time.  I hardly missed won all year up until the last couple of matches but the management put faith in me.  The last day I was begging Paddy McGill to come and hit them but they said I was the free taker and stood by me.  The belief they showed in me helped.  We’re very strong and very together.”

With Conor Carson missing out on the Ruairi’s victory with a burgeoning career as a pilot in its infancy, McManus paid tribute to the Cushendall forward: “Sean (McAfee) took his chance.  He’s very strong physically and he took the goal well but my heart goes out to Conor Carson.  We wouldn’t have been in an Ulster final if it wasn’t for Carson.  He’s been immense.  He’s big but he’s so athletic as well.  He carried us in the St John’s game and he done the same in the county final as well.  He would have relished that today and we’re all thinking about him.”

The match itself was marred with the injury to Arron Graffin.  McManus is a life long friend of the Ruairi’s star defender, adding: “Arron Graffin epitomises anything and everything you would want a young player to see.  He doesn’t give in.  He plays like that in training.  He’s horrendous to be marking in training so you can only imagine what he would be like for an Ulster final but he’ll be back.  You can’t write Arron Graffin off.”

Another winter of preparing for a tilt at the All-Ireland lays ahead with the Ruairi’s waiting on the outcome of the Galway final between St Thomas’ and Liam Mellows.  Essentially, Cushendall are 60 minutes away from Croke Park and St Patrick’s day.  It sounds easy when it’s broken down like that but for now, McManus said they’ll enjoy being Ulster champions once again: “This means everything to everybody, it really, really does.  It’s a short winter when you’re preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final and this will be no different.”EA7I1555

“They were rewarded for their hard work” Kearney

By Brendan McTaggart

Having sealed a record 11th provincial title, Cushendall players, management and supports were awash with a mix of relief and ecstasy. Playing with the wind in the first half they dominated Ballycran and thoroughly deserved their eight point half time lead. The Ruairi’s refused to let Ballycran have any momentum in the opening 30 minutes and while the second half was always going to be a different proposition, the experience and knowhow within the Cushendall set up was always going to be a telling factor.

What no-one could have foreseen beforehand though was the off day the Down champions would have from placed ball. Three different takers in the second half with the normally accurate Colum McManus and Conor Woods misfiring along with Scott Nicholson. Five chances came and gone in a dogged second half but Ballycran took too long to impose themselves on the game. The pressure told in the second half and they found the Cushendall defence were in no mood to give them an inch.

When we spoke with the Rauiri’s coach Ciaran Kearney, he told us: “The second half wasn’t pretty but we were happy with the first half. I think there was six or eight in it at half time then eight in the end. It was dogged and maybe if they had a free taker. If they had a free taker on form today it might have been different but Neil (McManus) was bang on today.

“Again what a super performance from him. The lads were dogged in a physical game, bordering on one or two things that I wouldn’t have been overly fussed on but the boys kept their composure. Even at the end they were trying to get us dragged into something in the square at the end there but the lads knew to keep their cool but listen, we’re delighted.”

Sean McAfee’s first half goal was a huge factor on the outcome of the game. It helped the Ruairi’s build a substantial half time lead and Kearney told us he felt McAfee was the correct choice to replace Conor Carson: “Conor Carson was a massive loss for us today. We knew early in the week he wasn’t able to come and we went with Sean McAfee, that like for like threat that has worked for us in the last couple of weeks. Sean went in and got his goal and it was great. I thought he was getting pulled and dragged left right and centre, how he didn’t get frees, I’ll never know but the lads kept their composure.”

The team work and determination shown from the Ruairi’s in the second half helped them to repel the expected Ballycran second half charge. They dropped deeper to starve the Down forwards of room with Sean Delargy, Alex Delargy and Natty McNaughton all coming deep at different times. Kearney reserved praise for another of the Ruairi’s stars: “In the second half after the break, we got one or two points from play. Neil, Natty and Eoghan Campbell and that kind of took us home.

“I thought our full back line were brilliant. Very solid considering they were playing a team that scored four goals against Slaughtneil.

“You saw what Ryan McCambridge done in the last 15 minutes there. That’s what he’s capable off and that’s what we’ve been at him to do. He was fantastic.

“We didn’t look past Ballycran. This talk of Cushendall being the team you want to get in an Ulster final, this Cushendall team of 2018 is a different animal. They’ve proved that this year and I’m so delighted.

“They’re getting their rewards for their hard work all year and we’ll enjoy this for a night or two but we’ll knuckle down and see what follows.”

Cushendall now progress to an All-Ireland semi-final with the winners of St Thomas’ and Liam Mellows from Galway in February.RainbowThere was gold at the end of the Ruairi Og rainbow. Pic by John McIlwaine

McManus magic steers Ruairi’s to Ulster crown

AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship Final

Cushendall 1-15 Ballycran 0-10

Sunday November 11

Brendan McTaggart reports from The Athletic Grounds, Armagh

Cushendall sealed their 11th Ulster championship on Sunday afternoon after a gritty performance against a dogged Ballycran side.  Eight points separated the sides by the full time whistle with the Ruairi’s opening half putting them in control of the final.

The Antrim champions outfought, out-muscled and out-manoeuvred Ballycran in the opening 30 minutes to hold an eight point lead at the short whistle and while they played into the wind in the second half, they always had an element of control with the St Joseph’s men only getting to within four points at any stage after the restart.  The Down champions cause wasn’t helped with their free-takers having an off day – five scoreable frees missed during the second half and while they created goal chances, the Ruairi’s defence were immense.  None more so than the luckless Arron Graffin.  A leader in every sense of the word, Graffin was outstanding until suffering a bad knee injury.  The match was held up for in excess of eight minutes and while Ballycran restarted with the same intensity and vigour they showed from the throw in of the second half, Cushendall were more than a match.

20Natty McNaughton’s hurl bends over the helmet of Ballycran’s Paudie Flynn as Fergus McNaughton reaches for the ball during Sunday’s Ulster final in Armagh. Pic by John McIlwaine

Like so often in this years championship when they needed a score, McManus delivered for the Ruairi’s.  If he wasn’t at his best from placed ball in the semi-final and final of the Antrim championship, the Cushendall man was back on top form from frees while having the freedom of the Athletic Grounds in a roaming role.  McManus was peerless in a man of the match performance.

The Burke brothers in defence, Martin at full back and Paddy along side him.  Fearless, tigerish and brilliant while in attack Sean McAfee attempted to replace the irreplaceable.  Conor Carson unavailable yet McAfee was more than an able replacement.  He had an almighty tussle over the hour with Patrick Hughes and it was the Cushendall man’s 24th minute goal that gave the Ruairi’s the impetus and a match clinching half time lead.

Natty McNaughton, talk of retirement after beating Loughgiel two week’s ago yet he was one of the Ruairi’s outstanding performers once again.  A delightful side line from fully 45 yards out in the first half while scoring their opening point of the second at a time when Ballycran threatened to make a comeback and the Ruairi’s were stuttering.  Natty has become an essential cog to the Ruairi Og machine.

The Down champions put in a much-improved performance in the second half and while their full back line was immense in the second half with Sean Ennis, Patrick Hughes and Michael Hughes imperious, the size of the task for the Ardsmen in the second half was too great.  Conor Woods was sent off for a second yellow card late in the game but his dismissal had little bearing on the game.

Both sides made a nervy start to the final with Scott Nicholson (free) and Neil McManus failing to hit the target in the opening exchanges and while Fergus McCambridge opened the scoring in the fourth minute, Ballycran hit back with a free from Colum McManus with the next attack.  Cushendall began to go through the gears though with McManus (two frees) and McNaughton’s terrific side line opening a three point lead for the Ruairi’s.

With McAfee causing huge problems on the edge of the square, Cushendall were always going to pose a goal threat.  In the 10th minute McAfee got on the end of a long ball but his first time pull saw the sliotar sail wide from an acute angle.  A reprieve for the Down men and while Conor Woods split the posts from a free to get his side firing again, Sean Delargy kept the momentum with Cushendall when he split the posts in the 13th minute.

3Man of the match Neil McManus gave another oustanding display to haul his team over the line. Pic by John McIlwaine

Ballycran began to settle into the game and went score for score with the Ruairi’s.  Niall Breen and Woods (two) finding the target with McManus (three) answering for Cushendall before McAfee landed the only goal of the game.  McNaughton retrieved the sliotar from a ruck before leaving the ‘Cran defence in his wake while scampering down the right.  With an eye for goal, his drive was superbly saved by Stephen Keith but McAfee showed his predatory instincts to sweep the sliotar to the back of the net.

A further brace of points from McManus (one ’65) opened an eight point lead for Cushendall by the 29th minute and while Scott Nicholson got the score board ticking again for Ballycran, Cushendall and Paddy Burke had the final say of the half.  The Cushendall captain showing his attacking instincts with a fine score on the stroke of half time.

With a sizeable wind, eight points was far from insurmountable.  Cushendall held the aces going into the second half but Ballycran would have been confident of reeling the Antrim champions in.  A brace of points from Nicholson and Colum McManus (free) reduced the Cushendall lead to six points after five minutes of the second half before Ballycran had a sniff of a goal chance.  A long range free from Scott Nicholson dropped short and with the Cushendall defence failing to deal with the dropping sliotar, James Coyle pounced only to see his first timed pull sail wide.

Ballycran were looking more dangerous after the restart but three wides in the opening five minutes, two from placed ball proved to be damaging.  Cushendall opened their account for the second half with Natty McNaughton firing over an instinctive score to lift the Ruairi’s spirits in the crowd in the 43rd minute.  Those Ruairi roars in the large crowd in attendance at the Athletic Grounds turned to gasps moments later with the sight of Arron Graffin requiring immediate medical attention.  The game was stopped for over eight minutes as the Cushendall man received a standing ovation from all in attendance at the Athletic Grounds while leaving the field on a stretcher.

9He may have ended on the losing team but Phelim Savage’s burgeoning reputation lost nothing today as the youngster gave another polished display. Pic by John McIlwaine

James Coyle fired over for the first score after the restart to reduce the Cushendall lead to six points once again but Ballycran’s radar had left them from placed ball once again.  Colum McManus this time failing to hit the target from 45 yards.  The Ardsmen continued to push and created another goal chance in the 58th minute.  Scott Nicholson’s effort dropped short and caused mayhem in the Cushendall defence.  They initially couldn’t clear the sliotar and with Colum McManus and Niall Breen close by, Pa Burke cleared the danger yet it was more free agony from the resulting ’65 for Ballycran with Scott Nicholson failing to find the target.

Cushendall were defending deeper and deeper as the game went to the death with any attacks fleeting at best.  Graffin’s replacement, Francis McCurry was heavily involved as Cushendall repelled the constant wave of Ballycran pressure and while Colum McManus landed a free in the first minute of the 12 additional to be added, it was going to take a monumental effort for the Down men to get salvage their Ulster title hopes.

Cushendall and McManus eased the would be nerves of the Ruairi faithful with a brace of long range frees before a classy score from Eoghan Campbell added gloss to the score line for their side.  Ballycran’s Conor Woods saw red for a second bookable offence deep in injury time and while they continued to press, Ballycran found the Ruairi’s defence impenetrable on the day.

It wasn’t a classic performance from the Ruairi’s but they got the job done.  A long winter lays ahead and another tilt at the All-Ireland awaits.  For now, the Four Seasons Cup makes its way to Páirc Mhuire for 2018.  Cushendall 2018 Ulster champions.

 

24Sean McAfee celebrates after scoring Cushendall’s goal. Pic by John McIlwaine

TEAMS

Cushendall: Eoin Gillan; David Kearney, Martin Burke, Paddy Burke; Sean Delargy, Arron Graffin, Stephen Walsh; Eoghan Campbell, Neil McManus; Sean McAfee, Fergus McCambridge; Ryan McCambridge; Alex Delargy, Donal McNaughton, Paddy McGill.

Subs: Eunan McKillop for F McCambridge (42); Francis McCurry for A Graffin (51); Cormac McClafferty for P McGill (57); Niall McCormick for S McAfee (60+4); Emmet Laverty for D McNaughton (60+11)

Scorers: Neil McManus 0-9 (6 f’s, 1’65); Sean McAfee 1-00; Donal McNaughton 0-2; Sean Delargy 0-1; Paddy Burke 0-1; Eoghan Campbell 0-1; Fergus McCambridge 0-1.

Ballycran: Stephen Keith; Michael Hughes, Patrick Hughes, Sean Ennis; Michael Taylor, Paudie Flynn, Brett Nicholson; Scott Nicholson, Phelim Savage; Cormac McAllister, Conor Woods, Liam Savage; Niall Breen, Colum McManus, James Coyle.

Subs: Andrew Bell for S Ennis (Blood sub – 26, reversed 30); Christopher Egan for N Breen (HT); Gerard Hughes for C McAllister (HT); Paul McSkimmons for J Coyle (60+8); Andrew Bell for M Taylor (60+9)

Scorers: Conor Woods 0-3 (1 f); Colum McManus 0-3 (3 f’s); Scott Nicholson 0-2; Niall Breen 0-1; James Coyle 0-1.

Referee: James Connors (Donegal)

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Cmac in black and amber.. and a family divided

Left – Cmac and Cori. Right Cmac with their son Laochra after Ballycran’s win in the Down final.

Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship final preview

Regardless of how Sunday’s final goes in the Athletic Grounds in Armagh one player is going to have mixed feelings about the result. Ballycran half forward Cormac McAlister was born and raised in Cushendall and wore the famed maroon jersey at all levels from U12 right through to senior, and he even features on the ‘Wee John’ mural on the gable wall of the Lurig Inn. However on Sunday in Armagh Cmac will be in the black and amber of Ballycran, facing not only his former team mates, but his first cousin David Kearney, who is likely to line out in the Ruairi Og half back line.

When Cormac met Ballycran camog Cori Smyth on a night out in Belfast a few years ago it was love at first sight and soon they were an item. Cormac was living in Cushendall and playing for the Ruairis but when their son Laochra was born everything changed, and Cormac made the move down the Ards. The Smyth family was steeped in the Ballycran club so the logical solution for Cormac was to throw in his lot with the men and black and amber and since playing his first game in the league against Rossa back in April there has been no looking back. He had played his first few games in the half back line but as the season progressed he was moved to the forwards and in the county final against Portaferry he scored a vital goal in their narrow win over their neighbours. Since then he has played on the team who created a major shock by beating two times Ulster champions and hot favourites Slaughtneil, a victory that set up a final showdown with his family and friends in north Antrim.

21Cmac and his former team mate Paddy McGill in action during the Ballycran v Cushendall league game in July.

In the lead up to Sunday’s showdown there has been a lot of banter between Cmac and his old, and new, team mates, and he has been warned by those on the Ballycran side not to let his cousin David catch too many balls. He admits to being nervous about Sunday’s final and says that he is generally nervous going into a big game, but this one is at a whole new level. Cormac has plenty of experience in playing in these games, but most of it was built up on the Cushendall side of the field. “We always had really hard battles with Ballycran and there was seldom any more than a couple of points between the sides”

He did play for Ballycran when the sides met in the league earlier this season on a wet and windy evening in Ballycran, but Cushendall had three goals to spare at the end of it, though in truth it is hard to judge the two teams on that game, such was the strength of the wind. Cormac was not there when they played in the return leg in Cushendall, a game the Ruairis won by six.

When ask about Sunday and playing against his old team-mates and close friends in the Ulster final Cormac said. “When I moved to Ballycran I knew that it may be a possibility somewhere down the line, but to be honest I didn’t think it would happen in my first season. I’ll just have to shut it all out for sixty minutes and hope we come out on the right side at the end”

Cormac McAllister’s story is something that adds even more intrigue to Sunday’s clash. Twenty five years on from their previous final meeting there are many from both the Ballycran and Cushendall teams who will have sons or nephews lining out this time around. Noel Keith who was goalkeeper in ‘93 has his son Stephen filling the same number 1 shirt, while Patrick Dorrian, Hugh Torney and team manager Gary Savage have two sons each on the panel. On the Cushendall side Mark McCambridge’s son Fergus will be lining out as hopefully will John Carson’s son Conor and Paddy Walsh’s nephew Scott.

13939352_1065607690175407_4089660621809918486_nCmac with his family after the 2015 championship win over Ballycastle. His granda Donal Kearney is on the left.

Cormac McAlister’s mother is Jacqueline McAlister – formally Jacqueline Kearney. Her father Donal Kearney is one of the great Ruairi Og stalwarts. Since they made the breakthrough at senior level back in 1981 Cushendall has tasted success on a regular basis. However it has not always been that way, and during the lean times in the fifties and sixties, when the club was struggling, it was men like Donal Kearney who helped to keep it all going. I have often heard the story of a Ruairi Og AGM in the sixties when only four people turned up to the Parochial Hall on a December Sunday. One of the four was Donal Kearney.  He has served the club faithfully down the years holding practically every position in the club committee, including chairman, and he has also managed a range of teams from juvenile to senior. On Sunday Donal will be sitting in the stand in the Athletic grounds. A great Ruairi Og follower who will nonetheless be in a bit if a dilemma with grandsons David and Cormac facing each other out on the pitch below. The natural instinct will be to cheer for his native club but as we all know family ties can go even deeper.                                                                                                                                  You could argue that he is on a winner either way. He will want to see both grandsons doing well, but no doubt the love of his native Ruairi Og will see him come down on the side of the team in maroon.

1984- 087Team manager Donal Kearney gives a half time team talk during a championship match back in 1984.

Ruairi’s ready for tough ‘cran test

By Brendan McTaggart

Pics by John McIlwaine

The Ruairi Og’s travel to the Athletic Grounds on Sunday in search of more silverware.  With the Volunteer Cup safely residing in Páirc Mhuire for the year, Cushendall take on Down champions Ballycran for the Four Seasons Cup and the Ulster crown.

It will be two weeks since Eamon Gillan’s men overcame the challenge of Loughgiel to take their 14th county title with three points to spare over the Shamrocks and on Sunday afternoon in Armagh, they’re vying to keep the roll going.

10Cushendall full back Paddy Burke showed he could just as easily play in the forwards with his cooly finished goal in the Antrim final win over Cushendall.Pic by John McIlwaine

In the aftermath of the county final, the Ruairi’s captain Paddy Burke was the talking point for all the interviews.  Why was the Cushendall full back 80 yards up the field to get on the end of Conor Carson’s pass for the Ruairi’s first goal that day?  The Cushendall captain joked: “It’s long been forgotten about to be honest.  The craic was good at the time and we enjoyed the couple of day’s celebrations but we soon knuckled down.  The lads have kept their focus on Sunday’s match.”

On the county final itself, the Ruairi’s defender said the Antrim champions have identified areas for improvement ahead of their meeting with Ballycran: “You don’t really think about the intricacies too much.  Me and Martin were saying the other night that it was four points to two after ten minutes and I suppose we kicked on but we were wasteful enough in our chances on the day and that’s something we’ve had to look on.”  Having tasted defeat for the last two year, Burke joked: “It’s not ideal but after losing a couple it certainly made victory all the more sweet.”

Sunday’s opponents for the Ruairi’s caused an upset in their semi-final when they dethroned the much fancied Derry champions and reining champions, Slaughtneil.  The Ardsmen had 10 points to spare over the Oak leaf side and the Ruairi’s captain told us he wasn’t surprise: “It wasn’t that much of a shock.  We’ve played Ballycran a lot in the league, we know each other inside out and they would have been well fired up for that match.”

Much has been said in recent weeks of the undeniable spirit and incredible attitude within the Ruairi’s camp.  It’s taken them from the brink against St John’s and helped them overcome Loughgiel in the county final.  Burke, a student in his last year at University gave us a hint on where this spirit was created: “There has been three or four boys who have career threatening injuries.  It’s the third time Arron Graffin has had trouble with the same knee, Martin’s neck injury at the start of the year and Del’s hand injury.  Seeing those lads come back from those injuries puts things into perspective but it takes a certain mentality to comeback from them and when other players see that, it gives them a lift.  They see what other boys are going through to be part of this and they know they have to either stay on their game or take their game to a new level.

“It’s not easy when you’re in the gym and watching the rest of the boys go through a full training.  You want to be part of it but when you’re there it drives you on.”

Ballycran were the first side from Down to win the Ulster championship, this year marking 25 years since that day in Casement Park.  The Ruairi’s don’t need any further reminding that they can’t take Sunday’s match for granted.  They just have to look to four years ago when after coming through a semi-final replay against Slaughtneil, they were defeated by Portaferry in the provincial decider.  Burke told us their recollections of that match in Owenbeg still lingers: “That match is still fresh in our memories and it’s definitely something we’re wary off.  We don’t want the same thing happening again that’s for sure.

“We’ve played each other plenty of times in the league over the last few years and know each other inside out.  Off course it’s beneficial playing someone who you know and there shouldn’t be any surprises but you can look at it the other way – we won’t hold too many surprises for them either.

“We know Sunday’s going to be a tough match.  It always is when you play Ballycran.  Rarely do you get things all your own way against them.”

28Conor Carson’s physical presence will be badly missed in the Cushendall attack.

Burke told us the Ruairi’s have a fully fit squad ahead of Sunday’s decider but doubts remain over the availability of Conor Carson.  The Cushendall forward has been instrumental in the Ruairi’s run to the Ulster final with a man of the match performance in the semi-final replay and a gargantuan performance against Loughgiel in the county decider.  If he is unavailable, it’s a major blow for the Ruairi’s: “We’re not sure what’s happening there at the minute.  I know they’re trying to get something sorted but he’s only started the training.  It may not be possible to fly him back for the match.

“If he can’t play he’ll be a massive loss.  He’s been superb the last few matches for us and has been the difference with his ability to get ball, create for others and give us another option.

“Apart from Conor, everyone else is available.  We have the off niggle here and there but when it comes to playing in the Ulster final, you play through it.”

The Down champions led from start to finish in their semi-final win against Slaughtneil with a brace of goals from James Coyle coming either side of majors from Niall Breen and Christopher Egan.  The ‘Crans 10 point win made a mockery of the bookies 10/1 offering before the sliotar was thrown in at Corrigan Park two weeks ago and shows that on their day the Ardsmen are a match for anyone and more.  Cushendall will start as favourites and I expect them to add to their 10 provincial titles to go clear in the roll of honour for the Four Seasons Cup but don’t expect any landslide victories.EA7I3449Paddy Burke in action against Loughgiel’s Shay Casey during the county final.