Powerful Emmets sweep Cuchullains aside to take Ulster crown

AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Final

Dunloy 0-10 Sleacht Néill 1-15

Sunday November 10

Brendan McTaggart reports from Páirc Esler, Newry

“That’s the best performance from these lads in the five years I’ve been here.”  The words from Sleacht Néill manager Mickey McShane after he watched his side power past the Cuchullains to regain the Four Seasons Cup.

Eight points separated the sides at the end of the hour, in truth it could have been more.  The Derry champions had Dunloy under pressure all over the pitch from the first whistle and didn’t allow the Cuchullains attack to hit the heights they have done so this season.  Too often Dunloy were caught in possession and couldn’t get any momentum going.  Much of that was down to the brilliance of Sleacht Néill.  On a day when you need leaders to stand up and be counted, the Derry men had a team of them.  Chrissy McKaigue in midfield, popping up everywhere.  Gerald Bradley as a sweeper, playing the role to perfection.  Brian Cassidy, a nervy start before tormenting the Dunloy defence along with Brendan Rogers.

The Cuchullains trailed by just two points at half time but for most of the first half they played second fiddle.  The pivotal moment came in the 40th minute when Nigel Elliott was sent off for a second yellow card.  It was an innocuous challenge but by the letter of the law it did warrant a second booking.  Elliott was the one Dunloy forward who looked like getting any change from a brilliant Sleacht Néill defence and with his sending off went Dunloy’s hopes of an 11th Ulster title.

Dunloy’s Nigel Elliott in action against Slaughtneil’s Meehaul McGrath

In defence Conor McKinley was superb, a powerhouse on the edge of the Cuchullains square while Ryan Elliott behind him pulled off a save in the first half that was quite simply brilliant but it was a below par performance from the Cuchullains who could have no complaints over the score at the end of the hour.

The Cuchullains made a bright start to the final with Eoin O’Neill sending over the opening point of the hour in the second minute.  Sleacht Néill’s response was indictive of their performance throughout the first half.  Powerful but errant.  A trio of wides preceded Rogers goal chance when Brian Cassidy passed to him on the run.  Firing low to Elliott’s right, the Dunloy ‘keeper managed to turn the sliotar away for a ’65.  Cormac O’Doherty pointed a free from his own ’45 in the ninth minute to get the Robbies firing.

Dunloy weren’t getting any change from the Sleacht Néill half back line but retook the lead in the 11th minute and could have been celebrating the games first goal moments later.  Nigel Elliott evading the tackles of a trio of Sleacht Néill defenders but his effort was blocked by a defending limb.

The sides went score for score with Brian Cassidy and Rogers firing over either side of Conal Cunning’s 16th minute point but the Cuchullains came close to the opening goal the Sleacht Néill ‘keeper diving at full stretch to deny Ronan Molloy when all in attendance waited on the sliotar bulging the net.  A top drawer safe but it was a massive chance for the Cuchullains and Sleacht Néill took full advantage of their reprieve.  They scored four points in five minutes to take control with Rogers, Jerome McGuigan, O’Doherty (free) and a superb catch and point from distance by Gerald Bradley firing over the scores to give Sleacht Néill a four point lead.

The Cuchullains were stung into action with Cunning (free) and Chrissy McKaigue swapping points before another Cunning free and Ronan Molloy point reduced the Sleacht Néill lead to two points.

Half time: Dunloy 0-6 Sleacht Néill 0-8

Despite their dominance, a two point lead for the Derry men was far from insurmountable.  Dunloy did very little hurling in the first half and would have been relieved to be trailing by just two points at the interval.  Sé McGuigan opened the scoring in the second half after barely 30 seconds and while the Cuchullains looked more energised after the restart, their accuracy in front of the target let them down when they needed it.  A free from O’Doherty, deep inside his own half compounded the Cuchuallins frustrations although ‘Coby’ scored his fourth point and fifth of the match overall to open Dunloy’s account after the interval in the 38th minute.

Trailing by three points, Dunloy were dealt a major blow when Nigel Elliott was given a second yellow card in the space of six second half minutes.  A soft decision but one that rarely goes unpunished.  It would take something special for the Cuchullains to get back into the final and when Coby reduced the Sleacht Néill lead to just two midway through the second half, everything was still possible.

The Derry champions responded to the challenge laid down by the Cuchullains by all but ending the contest with ten minutes remaining.  Meehaul McGrath firing over from distance before Sleacht Néill were awarded a penalty after a foul on O’Doherty.  The Robbies ace marksman stepped up to take the resulting penalty and despite guessing the right way, the sliotar was fired low, skid and bounced to deceive Ryan Elliott.  A six point lead for Sleacht Néill and they rarely looked like letting it slip.

The Cuchullains hit back with Coby (free) and substitute Seaan Elliott splitting the posts but Sleacht Néill finished strongly.  Jerome and Mark McGuigan firing over before Rogers scored his third of the match in the last minute of normal time.

The Cuchullains looked for the goals they would need to revive their hopes.  Another chance came and gone when Keelan Molloy fired the sliotar to the edge of the square and despite the support in attendance, the sliotar evaded everyone.

Sleacht Néill scored the last point of the final when O’Doherty took his tally to 1-4 for the match after Brian Cassidy saw red for a second yellow card deep in injury time but the destination of the Four Seasons Cup was already sealed by that stage.

On an afternoon where the Cuchullains dreamed for more, Sleacht Néill showed once again they are the team to beat.  The Cuchullains didn’t click or fire like they needed to but the Emmets had their number as they made it three Ulster titles in four years. 

TEAMS

Dunloy: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Conor McKinley, Conor Kinsella; Eamon Smyth, Ryan McGarry, Kevin McKeague; Paul Shiels, Kevin Molloy; Nigel Elliott, Nicky McKeague, Ronan Molloy; Eoin O’Neill, Conal Cunning, Keelan Molloy

Subs: Gabriel McTaggart for E O’Neill (45); Seaan Elliott for N McKeague (51); Chrissy Brogan for R Molloy (57)

Scorers: Conal Cunning 0-7 (6 f’s); Ronan Molloy 0-1; Eoin O’Neill 0-1; Seaan Elliott 0-1

Sleacht Néill: Oisin O’Doherty, Karl McKaigue, Sean Cassidy, Cormac McKenna; Shane McGuigan, Séan O Caiside, Meehaul McGrath; Gerald Bradley, Chrissy McKaigue; Mark McGuigan, Cormac O’Doherty, Brendan Rogers; Sé McGuigan, Jerome McGuigan, Brian Cassidy

Subs: Conor McAllister for C McKenna (46); Conor McKenna for J McGuigan (58); Gareth O’Kane for S McGuigan (inj)

Scorers: Cormac O’Doherty 1-4; Brendan Rogers 0-3; Jerome McGuigan 0-2; Brian Cassidy 0-1; Meehaul McGrath 0-1; Gerald Bradley 0-1; Chrissy McKaigue 0-1; Mark McGuigan 0-1; Sé McGuigan 0-1

Referee: Aiden Ferguson (Fermanagh)

The Final Word…..

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.

McShane and O’Kane look forward to Sunday

AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship

Dunloy vs Sleacht Néill

Sunday November 10 @ 3pm in Newry

Referee: Aidan Ferguson (Fermanagh)

Managers View

Sleacht Néill – Mickey McShane

Now in his fifth year in charge of the Derry kingpins, Ballycastle native Mickey McShane has turned Sleacht Néill from contenders in Ulster to the team who everyone has to beat.  They’ve met any challenge put in their way and raised the bar yet for McShane, it’s all about continual improvement.

Having won yet another Derry crown, McShane told us it’s not difficult to keep his players focussed: “It’s not difficult at all.  Before the championship started we knew we would have one tough game against Kevin Lynch’s, whenever that might have been, it transpired that match was in the final.  That’s no disrespect to Lavey who we beat in the semi-final.

“We had the help of going for seven in a row.  That had helped to maintain focus.  It’s the first time that had been done in Derry but we had to be at our best to get past the challenge of the Lynch’s.”

Like Dunloy, the Sleacht Néill men had a four week break before their semi-final meeting with Armagh side, Middleton: “Sleacht Néill were still involved in the football championship after the hurling final so they had that but we’ve had more time than we ever had in previous years to get ready for the Ulster championship.  After they were put out of the football, we gave them an extra few days off to recover and but for one challenge match against Jordanstown where we gave everyone a run out, it was all training for three weeks.”

McShane continued: “We didn’t play at the top of our game but we never really had to.  We were competent in what we were doing without ever hitting close to top gear.

“I think defensively we have to be pleased with our game.  To concede just one point from play in an Ulster club game is very pleasing.

“It was a stop-start game without much flow for whatever reason but I’ve said it before, we needed that match.  We needed that under our belts and it will stand by us for Sunday.

“I maybe came across as being more disappointed than I actually was after that game.  At the end of the day we’re back in an Ulster final, playing on the biggest day in the calendar in club hurling again.”

All attention since the county finals has been the potential of a replay from two years ago when Sleacht Néill brought Dunloy back down to earth.  McShane has fond memories of that encounter but less so from their semi-final defeat to Ballycran last year: “Two years ago will have no bearing on Sunday’s game.  From what I can remember, we took a while to get started but once we went through the gears, we dominated them.

“Last year there was underlying issues.  I don’t want to take anything away from Ballycran who were excellent on the day but our lads looked like they had hit a brick wall.  They needed that break and it’s added to the development of these young lads as well.”

Sleacht Néill are a seasoned team in the Ulster championship and two years ago they showed they’re experience, outmuscling the youthful Cuchullains in Owenbeg.  Dunloy have made strides in their strength and conditioning but McShane says his squad have been working hard too: “I’ve heard a lot about how the Dunloy lads have been doing a lot on their strength and conditioning since that match two years ago.  That’s fair enough but our boys have hardly been sitting on their hands as well.  I would say this is the strongest position we’ve ever been in coming into an Ulster final.

“This group of players would be of a similar age profile to the Dunloy squad but the experience they have of these occasions is massive.

The Sleacht Néill manager finished by adding his side aren’t feeling the weight of pressure coming into Sunday’s final: “The pressure is on Dunloy.  They won the Antrim championship in 2017 and I think I’, right in saying we were the first team to beat them in the Ulster championship.  They won’t want to be the first Dunloy team to be beaten twice in Ulster or the first to lose an Ulster final.

“We’re massively looking forward to this.  It’s the biggest day in the Ulster club calendar and a chance to regain our title.  To win a third Ulster title in four years.  The boys are hugely looking forward to it.”

Managers View

Dunloy – Gregory O’Kane

Antrim champions Dunloy are in their 11th Ulster final on Sunday but their first in 10 years.  A sign of what has been and what the Cuchullains hope is to come.  After their exploits in claiming the Antrim championship, the Cuchullains had a four week break to deal with before their semi-final against Ballycran but as manager Gregory O’Kane told us, they welcomed the break after the rigours of the Antrim championship: “The four week break was nice.  It was a welcome break after a tough and difficult Antrim championship.  It’s a tough championship to win, you don’t get anything easy against the Loughgiel’s. Cushendall’s, St John’s and Rossa’s.  It was good to have that break where we could regroup and re-energise, get ready for another big step against Ballycran and now Sleacht Néill.

The Cuchullains were at their brilliant best against the Ardsmen, running out 18 point winners and while O’Kane said they were focussed on a good start and putting in a performance, he feel’s the final score wasn’t a fair reflection on the Down champions: “It was pleasing [the performance].  We did a good few things right in the game but I think the sending off had a major impact on the game.  They went down to 14 men and the final score wasn’t a fair reflection on a good Ballycran side.

“We went out and wanted a performance.  We did that and that’s pleasing off course but at the same time, that’s parked now and was soon after the game.

“All thoughts turned to Sunday’s match shortly after the final whistle in the Athletic Grounds.”

Two years ago Dunloy came up against the Sleacht Néill juggernaut in a packed Owenbeg.  Over 6000 made the journey to the Derry Centre of Excellence where the Robbies recovered from an early Dunloy blitz to hit 1-8 without reply and take control.  The Dunloy manager told us ‘whats done is done’ when he continued: “2017 is gone.  I mean, you can’t ever play that match again.  It was disappointing but we will have five or six boys who weren’t involved that day at all.  It’s an Ulster final and it’s there to be won, two years ago hasn’t been in our thinking at all.

“Yes off course there’s been lessons learned from that game.  We didn’t perform on the day but we’ve always been keen to continue looking forward.  Keep the development and evolvement of this team going in the right direction and we feel like we’ve been doing that.”

After their shock defeat to Ballycran in last year’s Ulster semi-final, O’Kane feels Sleacht Néill are coming into Sunday’s final as a wounded animal with a  point to prove: “They got caught last year against Ballycran and I’m sure they are feeling like they should have been going for four Ulster titles in a row.  They’ll be out to prove a point but they’re a very, very good side.  They’ve been going for the last six, seven or eight years in a row and keep coming back to make the challenge.  It’s up to us to make sure we can meet that challenge.”

Dunloy’s record in the provincial final is unblemished to date.  10 times they reached the decider for the Four Seasons Cup and ten times the Cuchullain’s have brought the silverware back home with them.  The occasion gets no less for O’Kane, the Dunloy manager has been involved in all of the campaigns whether as a player or now, manager: “This will be the clubs 11th Ulster Final, first since 2009.  It’s great to see the next generation coming through and getting to experience these days.  It’s massive for the club, the community and everyone connected with Dunloy club.  We’re delighted to be here and we’re looking forward to what promises to be a wonderful occasion.”

Cuchullains book final spot with dominant display

AIB Ulster Club Hurling Championship Semi-Final

Dunloy 2-23 Ballycran 0-11

Sunday October 27

Brendan McTaggart reports from the Athletic Grounds, Armagh

Ruthless, efficient, job done.  Dunloy made serene if not facile progress to their first Ulster final in 10 years with an 18 point demolition of Ballycran on Sunday afternoon.  It was a scintillating performance from the Cuchullains who took apart Ballycran at will from the first whistle, scoring two goals over the hour and on another day that could have been five. 

Ballycran’s cause wasn’t helped when Gerard Hughes was given a straight red card for an incident involving Nigel Elliott four minutes into the second half and while it enhanced the pressure on the Down champions, it would have taken a special second half performance for the Down men to get back into the semi-final at that stage.

Dunloy’s Keelan Molloy gets away from Ballycran’s Brett Nicholson during Sunday’s AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling semi-final at the Armagh Athletic Grounds.

Nigel Elliott returned onto the pitch after treatment to finish with four points over the hour in a man of the match performance.  Already having a good game, he went through the gears after his treatment.  Power, pace, skills that left Ballycran chasing shadows but it was another top performance from the Cuchullains.  Defensively, they conceded just seven points from play, five to Liam Savage who shared all of Ballycran’s scores with Conor Woods – the centre forward finished the match with two points from play out of his 11.  Conor McKinley, Ryan McGarry and the returning Kevin Molloy superb throughout.

The semi-final was barely 25 seconds old when Dunloy opened the scoring, Keelan Molloy with his first of three for the match.  Nigel Elliott doubled the advantage soon after, Eoin O’Neill creating the chance and with a sight of goal, Elliott blazed over.  Another goal chance fell to the Cuchullains soon after, Keelan Molloy dancing past his marker before finding Chrissy Brogan in oceans of space.  Brogan couldn’t get a clean shot away however, he seemed to have too much time though and the chance was gone.  Coby Cunning converted the resulting ’65, his first of four points in the opening 30 minutes before a Conor Woods free from halfway opened Ballycran’s account in the ninth minute.

Dunloy’s top scorer Con Cunning is closed down by the Ballycran defence but still magages to get his score

Dunloy maintained their dominance with points from the maverick Eoin O’Neill and Nicky McKeague and while Liam Savage scored the Down men’s first from play in the 11th minute, Dunloy underlined their good start by scoring the first goal of the game in the 12th minute.  O’Neill collecting the sliotar down the right before dummying his way past his man.  Closing in on goal and on the angle, ‘Sammy’ passed inside to Cunning and his effort squeezed over the line.

Ballycran responded by bringing the best out of Ryan Elliott with the next attack.  Woods with a rasping drive from 20 yards but the Dunloy ‘keeper was equal to the shot and the Cuchullain defence cleared the danger.  A free and ’65 from Coby came either side of Woods’ second point from placed ball midway through the half.  Ballycran looked like they had weathered the early Dunloy storm when they fired over three unanswered points in as many minutes.  Liam Savage (two) and Woods with his first from play to leave four between the sides with ten minutes of the first half remaining.

Dunloy responded well, however.  Paul Shiels with a huge score from distance preceded Chrissy Brogan’s first of the day after good work from Conor Kinsella in the build-up. 

A Conor Woods free kept the score ticking for Ballycran and they had another goal chance before the interval.  Stuart Martin showing Phelim Duffin a clean pair of heels but Ryan Elliott once again made the save to deny the Down men.  Two points from Shiels and Coby (free) gave Dunloy a deserving seven point lead at the short whistle.

Dunloy centre back Ryan McGarry breaks from defence during Sunday’s Ulster semi-final win over Ballycran.

Half time: Dunloy 1-11 Ballycran 0-7

The seven point lead was the least Dunloy deserved.  They would have been disappointed in passing up the goal chances that came their way but they had a stranglehold on the semi-final and were able to tighten their grip soon after the restart.

Woods opened the scoring in the second half before corner back Gerard Hughes saw red.  Drawing scarlet from Nigel Elliott’s face with his hurl and giving referee James Clarke no option but end his game early.

Coby and Woods swapped frees by the 35th minute but Dunloy began to go through the gears.  Dropping ‘Shorty’ into a quarter-back role as their spare man, the Cuchullains began to create more space and chances with four points from McGarry, Nigel Elliott (two) and Keelan Molloy.  Elliott splitting the posts with his first touch after his reintroduction following his injury. 

Liam Savage’s fourth point of the match briefly halted the Dunloy charge but the Cuchullains cranked up the intensity once more.  Hunting in packs, pressing with vigour and not giving Ballycran an inch of space all over the pitch. 

The Cuchullains landed a further seven points to just one from Ballycran (Savage), scores from Nigel Elliott, Coby (two, one free), Nicky McKeague (two), Eamon Smyth and Keelan Molloy.  The Dunloy management were afforded the chance to empty their bench in the closing quarter and were still able to maintain their superiority and intensity to keep Ballycran on the back foot.

Substitute Anton McGrath completed the scoring with a goal from 25 yards, combing with Seaan Elliott before a strong finish to the bottom corner in injury time to round off an emphatic win for the Cuchullains.  A warning to the rest of Ulster and a scintillating sign of intent, a marker laid and now battle lines have been drawn.  Bigger tasks lay ahead.

Dunloy corner back Conor Kinsella gets away from Ballcran’s Conor Woods.

TEAMS

Dunloy: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Conor McKinley, Conor Kinsella; Eamon Smyth, Ryan McGarry, Kevin McKeague; Paul Shiels, Kevin Molloy; Nigel Elliott, Nicky McKeague, Chrissy Brogan; Eoin O’Neill, Conal Cunning, Keelan Molloy.

Subs: Seaan Elliott for N Elliott (blood sub 32, reversed 39); Gabriel McTaggart for C Brogan (38); Seaan Elliott for E O’Neill (43); Ronan Molloy for K Molloy (52); Anton McGrath for C Cunning (55); James McKeague for P Shiels (57)

Scorers: Conal Cunning 1-7 (4 f’s 2 ‘65’s); Nigel Elliott 0-4; Keelan Molloy 0-3; Nicky McKeague 0-3; Anton McGrath 1-00; Paul Shiels 0-2; Eamon Smyth 0-1; Ryan McGarry 0-1; Chrissy Brogan 0-1; Eoin O’Neill 0-1

Ballycran: Stephen Keith; Michael Hughes, Patrick Hughes, Gerard Hughes; Brett Nicholson, Padraig Flynn, Sean Ennis; Scott Nicholson, Phelim Savage; Michael Ennis, Conor Woods, Liam Savage; Stuart Martin, Colum McManus, Christopher Egan

Subs: James Coyle for C McManus (35); Brendan Ennis for S Martin (44); Cormac McAllister for S Nicholson (46); Niall Breen for C Egan (49)

Scorers: Conor Woods 0-6 (4 f’s); Liam Savage 0-5

Referee: James Clarke (Cavan)

Cuchullains face stiff test in Ulster semi

AIB Ulster Senior Hurling Club Championship Semi-Final

Dunloy vs Ballycran (Down)

Sunday October 26 @ The Athletic Grounds, Armagh

Throw In: 2:30pm

By Brendan McTaggart

The Cuchullains get back on the championship trail tomorrow after a long wait from the county final.  It’s not the ideal scenario but let’s face it, you would rather be waiting four weeks for your next competitive game of hurling than 24 weeks.  That’s the general consensus around Dunloy as they cast their gaze and prepare for a tilt at the provincial championship. 

On Sunday, they travel to the Cathedral City and make their way to the Atheltic Grounds with the Four Seasons Cup on their mind.  In their way, Ballycran.  The Down champions reached the Ulster series by overcoming Portaferry in the Mourne County final and come into the semi with redemption on their mind.

12 months ago, the Cran caused a huge upset when they dethroned Slaughtneil at the semi-final stage.  The Derry men had seemed unstoppable until that point but Ballycran had 10 points to spare over them on the day in Corrigan Park.  Where the redemption comes in, is their performance in the final against Cushendall.  An eight point defeat but a tale of missed frees, missed goal chances and essentially a missed opportunity.  There are those who would tell you the final score flattered the Ruairi’s on the day.  They will travel to Armagh with a hunger to prove they are better than they showed on the day.

The Elliott brothers should certainly test the Ballycran defence.

Paudie Flynn at centre half is their lynchpin and orchestrates their defence with Brett and Scott Nicholson also key for the Cran.  Colum McManus will be a handful on the edge of the square, after his red card was rescinded in the Down final he’s free to start the semi while Phelim Savage, James Coyle and Conor Woods will all need to be paid attention to.

The four week break since defeating Cushendall in the county final will leave the Cuchullains with some rusty to shake off their system but they’ve been on the march for this all season.  Two years ago when they met Slaughtneil, the Cuchullains felt they were in bonus territory.  That doesn’t seem like the case now.  Two years of maturing, two years of development and Dunloy are back on the Ulster trail.

Gregory O’Kane is left with more decisions over their starting 15.  Kevin Molloy is reported to be back and available for selection after missing the county final while Gabriel McTaggart and Seaan Elliott’s performance coming off the bench turned the final in their favour in a devastating close to the Antrim final. 

Phelim Duffin and Conor McKinley have been mainstay’s in the full back line this season with Aaron Crawford and Conor Kinsella fighting for the other corner back spot.  Kevin McKeague missed the Antrim semi-final win against Loughgiel but his performance against Cushendall from centre half makes him almost undroppable.  He filled in for ‘Bunga’ at centre half and was more than an able replacement with a man of the match performance.

Paul Shiels will pull the strings from deep and allow the talents of the likes of Keelan Molloy, Conal Cunning and Nigel Elliott to do the damage in attack.  One of the key facets of the Cuchullains team however, they have match-winners everywhere.  You keep those three quiet and you have Nicky McKeague, Eoin O’Neill and Chrissy Brogan to contend with.  McTaggart’s ability to catch clean ball and work in rucks could give him the nod on the three-quarter line but it’s just one of many options O’Kane and his management team are faced with.

The two sides faced each other once in the league this year before the split, the Cuchullains taking that one with a score line of 3-18 to 2-19.  Dunloy had made a number of changes for that match and needed injury time goals from Deaglan Smith and Ronan Molloy to finish a ‘smash and grab’ in Pearse Park.

Dunloy showed against Loughgiel that they can go into the trenches if required and have the ability to rip teams apart if they are given the opportunity.  Against Cushendall, they fought fire with fire and came out on top.  On Sunday, they go in as favourites but will need to be wary of the Cran, they are and have shown in the recent past that they the capability to cause an upset.