Cargin are slight favourites but it could be mighty close

Senior Football Championship final

Sunday 3-30 (Corrigan Park)

Erin’s Own Cargin v Lamh Dhearg

Tomorrow’s Senior Football championship final at Corrigan Park brings together two sides who will need no introduction to each other. Holders Erin’s Own take on the winners from two years ago, Lamh Dhearg and has all the makings of a good final.

The Hannastown side have trod a longer and more difficult path to the decider having accounted of St. Mary’s Ahoghill in a preliminary round game at  tomorrow’s venue with the Cloney men still in contention at half time before Lamh Dhearg stepped it up after the break to win with plenty to spare.

In the first round proper the Toome side didn’t get it all their own way against division 2 champions, O’Donovan Rossa but had five points to spare in the end against the Shaw’s Road side while Lamh Dhearg faced what looked like a much stiffer test against Kickham’s Creggan.

Lamh Dhearg powered into the semi-final of the Northern Switchgear Antrim Senior Football Championship after a 1-13-0-11 win over Creggan at Chapel Hill. An exhibition of shooting from Paddy Cunningham accounted for 0-10 of his sides scores throughout the sixty minutes.

Cargin looked to have been handed the more difficult draw when they faced old adversaries and former All Ireland winners, St. Gall’s in the semi-final. A year earlier it took a quite spectacular late goal from Tomas McCann to separate the sides at the same stage and many felt that this one could be as close.

The St. Gall’s challenge never really materialised however as Cargin reached their sixth decider in the space of seven years after brushing aside the challenge of the Milltown side with relative ease.

The men from Toome led 0-05-0-04 at the break in a half that lacked the quality and intensity that many of the spectators came to expect.

Cargin began to pull away with a goal at the beginning of the second period through David Johnson and had five-six points to spare for the majority of the second period, until substitute Ciaran Close scored his side’s second goal.

On the other side of the draw Casement’s Portglenone had been making many sit up and take notice when they beat St. John’s after an exciting replay at Colaiste Feirste with Lamh Dhearg waiting in the wings to face the winner in the semi-final.

The sides met at Creggan in the first of what transpired into a semi-final marathon and it took three games to separate a young Casement’s and eventual winners Lamh Dhearg in a trilogy of games that are likely to be talked about long after Sunday’s final.

Leading by four as the game in Creggan went into time added on, Lamh Dhearg were stunned as Paddy Kelly fired over a point before Conall Delargy rifled home from the spot to earn his side a replay.

And so it was onto the ‘Dub’ for the replay and another twist in what was becoming an intriguing story. The sides finished level again after extra time with the game set to be decided by a free kick shootout. After two sessions of free kicks the sides were level at 9-9 with the intervention of County chairman Ciaran McCavana bringing matters to a halt.

Paddy Cunningham was about to start the third series of kicks when County chairman McCavana approached referee Colm McDonald and after consolation with both managers it was agreed that a second replay would be required to see who will advance to meet Cargin in the County final.

Quinn Park, Ballymena was the venue for the second replay and in wet and difficult condition it was a Paddy Cunningham inspired Lamh Dhearg who finally emerged victorious. Despite narrowly trailing 0-05-0-04 at the interval a quick-fire double from the reliable corner-forward on the restart saw his side through to Sunday’s Northern Switchgear decider with Cargin on a scoreline of 2-08-0-09 after over 200 minutes of drama and ecstasy over the course of nine days.

While Lamh Dhearg have made the journey to the well on more occasions than they would have liked over the past two weeks Cargin have been waiting patiently in the wings but no doubt fine tuning their preparations for tomorrow’s final with nothing likely to have been left to chance.

Cargin have looked solid and difficult to beat on the occasions I have saw them this year and manager Damien Cassidy has a good blend of youth and experience at his disposal as he plans to deal with the challenge of the ‘marathon’ men.

John McNabb, Marty Kane, James Laverty, Tony Scullion, Justin Crozier, John Carron, Michael Magill and the McCann brothers, Michael, Paul and Tomas will be treading a well-worn and familiar championship path while David Johnston, Jimmy Gribbin, Gerard McCorley, Ciaran Bradley and Pat Shivers should add youthful exuberance to the Cargin challenge. The Cargin cause has been further boosted by the return of Kevin O’Boyle and Ciaran Close following lengthy spells out through injury.

Lamh Dhearg, like their opponents have many players who have tasted the white heat of championship before and are unlikely to be overawed with tomorrow’s occasion. John Finucane, Declan Lynch, Michael Herron, Kevin Quinn, Conor and Ryan Murray and the ever reliable Paddy Cunningham bring a wealth of experience while Owen McKeown, Ben Rice and Terry McCrudden have the legs to trouble the Erin’s Own defence.

The loss of towering mid-fielder Pearse Fitzsimmons to injury in the first replay against Portglenone was a big blow for Lamh Dhearg and they are likely to carry a few niggling injuries into Sunday’s final. Fatigue could be a factor but against that they are the side with momentum.

The game could turn into a shootout between two of the best finishers in the county, Tomas McCann for Cargin and Paddy Cunningham for Lamh Dhearg though both sides have a number of players who can influence the outcome.

Cargin though get a tentative nod to collect their second successive title but don’t be too surprised if it finishes all square. Mairtin Lynch will be saying “perish the thought!”

Managers give their views on Sunday’s final

Managers View – Gregory O’Kane, Cuchullains

Dunloy manager Gregory O’Kane continues his own personal crusade to write history with the Volunteer Cup.  As a player and a manager, he’s been involved in all of the Cuchullains championship winning teams.  13 might be unlucky for some but it’s the magic number for O’Kane and his team. 

Throughout his career, Greg’s parents have been by his side through thick and thin, the good and the bad.  He suffered their loss in the space of eight weeks nine months ago and there’s no doubting both will have been proud of their son and the Cuchullains.  It’s an incredible achievement for Gregory but he wasn’t interested in the personal accolade: “That’s number 13 and its nice stat to have but it’s not about me.  I have a management team around me with 35 plus players.  It’s their hard work and effort that got us here.”

The match itself turned in first half injury time when the Ruairi’s led by four points.  Nigel Elliott scoring the Cuchullains first goal and leaving the Cuchullains behind by just the minimum.  An improved performance in front of the target after the interval and two goals in two minutes at the business end of the hour sealed the deal.  Despite a frustrating opening half with double figures in wides, O’Kane told us they had to keep the faith: “That’s in us.  We just had to say to them at half time to keep going.  We didn’t play bad in the first half and we probably didn’t deserve to be behind. 

“We hit a lot of wides and it left us a bit nervous, you know.  But we got in at half time and said to trust in themselves and their instincts.”

The changes made during the second half proved to be pivotal.  Gabriel McTaggart and Seaan Elliott’s introduction significant with Elliott scoring the goals and McTaggart involved in the build up for both.  O’Kane made the call to start Seaan from the bench for the final after starting the three games previous, a massive call but the Dunloy manager told us: “Seaan Elliott is still a boy and learning his trade.  We felt the semi-final was a hard gig and physically he maybe wasn’t up to that so we decided to take the pressure off him today and allow him to come off the bench.

“Gaby’s a ball winner and we had the finisher off the shoulder and the finish was spot on.”

“We were always creating and we tried to keep the players composed.  We knew the scores would flow whether it be points or the goals.  We had to wait a bit longer for the goals but thank God they came when they did.”

For all the Cuchullains attacking talents, O’Kane was keen to highlight the shift his defence put in over the hour, especially without Kevin Molloy who suffered an injury in their semi-final win over Loughgiel: “I felt we dealt with them well in defence.  To lose Bunga was a massive blow for us but Kevin McKeague came in today and I thought he was outstanding.  He was as good as any player out on the pitch today.”

Cushendall’s first goal settled the Ruairi’s and while it came from an uncharacteristic error from Ryan Elliott, the way the Dunloy ‘keeper responded delighted O’Kane: “Ryan pulled off a brilliant save after half time and I thought his all-round game today was excellent.  His poc outs and those two saves were outstanding.”

The Cuchullains now have a four week wait before facing Ballycran in the Ulster semi-final in the Athletic Grounds, Armagh.  Before turning his attention to that, the Dunloy manager had a special word for the Cuchullains captain: “To have Paul Shiels as captain as well makes it special.  He’s our go to man when the chips are down and by god he delivered today.

“Off course we’re delighted to get into Ulster but we looked no further than today.  We knew this would be tough and the type of game Cushendall bring.” 

Managers View – Ciaran Kearney, Ruairi Og’s

The Ruairi’s reign as county champions ended on Sunday but they put in an incredible performance for 60 minutes in what has been described as one of the best county finals in recent years.  A small grain of consolation for the Ruairi’s but they more than played their part in an excellent advert for hurling within our county.

The match itself was defined in small but crucial moments.  Nigel Elliott’s goal before half time and Ryan Elliott denying Paddy McGill what seemed like a nailed on goal shortly after the restart.  Cushendall manager Ciaran Kearney gave his thoughts while recognising the Dunloy ‘keepers mental strength in how he recovered from his error in the first half: “We had goal chances and they had one or two good saves from Ryan and to be fair to him he atoned for himself.  I’m sure he’s pleased, I was a goalkeeper myself and I know what it’s like to drop one in.  He made some big saves and he can keep his head up after that.

“We just didn’t get the scores in the second half.  We had goal chances and we didn’t take them, that was the difference.

“We had to push up and it left us open at the back but it was a risk and reward scenario.  There’s no point in losing by seven or losing by one.  It’s the same kind of thing.”

Despite holding a lead at half time, Cushendall played much better after the interval.  The second half was pulsating, end to end hurling but the Cuchullains were more clinical, Kearney added: “We were a bit more direct in the second half, sending ball in and creating opportunities.  We maybe over played things around the middle on a few occasions in the first half, instead of taking the scores but we didn’t take our opportunities and that was the difference.

With the sides tied 20 minutes into the second half, Cushendall hit three wides in as many attacks.  It seemed to deflate their challenge and Kearney conceded a spell like that would harm their chances: “Wides don’t help at anytime.  There are obviously big moments in games but it’s all still a blur to me.  Fair play to Dunloy, we know they’re a good team but I feel that our boys showed they’re a hell of a team too.  We have a lot of boys there who are going to play senior hurling for Cushendall for a long time.  We’ll just have to comeback again.  This isn’t the first final we’ve lost unfortunately.  We lost in ’17 and came back in ’18.” 

Everyone knows the game Cushendall bring when they take to the field.  High pressure, huge intensity and massive physicality.  The work rate they go through is incredible and yesterday they surprised some with how attacking they set up.  Kearney cast a frustrated figure when commenting: “At times other teams play with two men in the full forward line and it’s called making space in the attack.  Some times we play two men in full forward and it’s called very defensive.  You have to do what works.  If I had a different set of players I might play a different style of hurling.  You can just play the hand that your dealt with.  Our lads have done very well I have to say and we’ve tried to play differently but when you look at the physicality that we’re missing from the likes of Conor Carson and Sean McAfee. 

“We’ve mixed things up with Paddy (McGill) and Alex (Delargy) for most of the year and do things differently.  We have plenty of boys, the likes of Paddy Burke and Eoghan Campbell that if they’re given time and space, they can do damage.  Niall McCormick breaking through, Fergus (McCambridge) breaking through, I don’t think us playing attacking hurling shouldn’t surprise anyone.”

They played their part in a hugely entertaining game but ultimately their championship ended at the final hurdle.  Kearney concluded by praising his squad for their efforts throughout the year: “Absolutely.  I just told the lads and before the game and then at half time again.  I couldn’t be prouder of them.  They’re an absolutely amazing bunch of lads and a pleasure to work with.”

Elliott Brothers seal county crown for Cuchullains

Bathshack.com Senior Hurling Championship Final

Dunloy 3-16 Cushendall 2-15

Sunday September 29

Brendan McTaggart reports from Páirc Mac Uílín, Ballycastle

Pulsating, intense, bewildering skill and ultimately an incredible hour of hurling.  All played out in front of a raucous support packed into Páirc Mac Uílín.  Everything you want from county final day and by the end of the hour, we had a winner.

Dunloy Cuchullains, county champions for the 13th time in their history and second in three years and while there was four points between them and the Ruairi Og’s at the final whistle, where the Volunteer Cup would reside wasn’t decided until the death.

Nigel Elliott celebrates after scoring his team’s opening goal seconds before half time in Sunday’s Antrim Senior Hurling final win over Cushendall at Pairc MacUílín, Ballycastle.

Two goals in as many minutes at the end of the hour from substitute Seaan Elliott ultimately proved to be decisive at the end of a close contest.  Cushendall held a one point lead at the interval in a half where the Cuchullains hit double figures in wides.  The Ruairi’s were to build a four point lead at one point in the opening 30 minutes with Neil McManus deadly accurate from placed ball, Paddy McGill causing the Dunloy defence plenty of problems and Fergus McCambridge taking advantage of some indecision between the sticks from Ryan Elliott.  The Dunloy ‘keeper would go on and more than atone for that indiscretion with three outstanding saves in the second half but the pivotal moment came in first half injury time when Nigel Elliott scored the Cuchullains first goal.  It brought them to within touching distance of Cushendall at a time when it felt like the Cuchullains challenge was in danger of wilting. 

The second half was full of drama with both sides improving.  Cushendall certainly played much better after the break while the Cuchullains improved their accuracy in front of the posts.  The sides were tied on three occasions with Cushendall holding a two point lead on two occasions.  It was the Cuchullains who finished superbly however with the changes made having a major impact.  Not only with Seaan Elliott’s two majors but Gabriel McTaggart’s impact and assist for Elliott’s first major.

Cushendall, to their eternal credit pushed to the end like all great champions do but Ryan Elliott was immense in those closing stages and although Christy McNaughton got a goal in the sixth minute of injury time, it was too little too late.

STARTED WELL

Nickey McKeague sends over an early Dunloy point.

The Cuchullains started the final well and looked more fluent in the opening exchanges.  Nicky McKeague fired over the opening point of the final while McManus split the uprights in the third minute for his first of ten points over the hour.  The Dunloy forward line were at their impish best with Keelan Molloy and Nigel Elliott splitting the posts to give the Cuchullains a solid start after six minutes.  McManus and Conal Cunning exchanged frees but ‘Coby’s’ 11th minute free was the Cuchullains last score for nine minutes when the Ruairi’s hit a purple patch.

Another McManus free brought Cushendall to within a single white flag before Fergus McNaughton scored the opening goal of the final in the 15th minute.  45 yards from goal, his effort for a point went high and caught in the breeze, Ryan Elliott misjudged the dropping sliotar and the ball bundled over the line.  A soft goal which was compounded by wides at the other end of the field for the Cuchullains and two frees from McManus to give Cushendall a four point lead with ten minutes of the first half remaining.  A point from Eoin O’Neill got Dunloy firing again before Fergus McCambridge restored Cushendall’s four point lead with a well taken point seconds later. 

Cushendall were more clinical in front of goal in the first half and while Dunloy played more of the hurling , their lack of accuracy was threatening to derail their challenge.  They found some form with a trio of unanswered scored coming from Coby Cunning (one free) before Cushendall did the same.  Eoghan Campbell, Alex Delargy and McManus (free) but the Cuchullains had the final say of the half.

Nigel Elliott collecting the sliotar wide on the left and making a dart for goal.  He fired low, bouncing the sliotar in front of the Conor McAllister with the bounce of the sliotar deceiving the Cushendall net minder.

Half time: Cushendall 1-9 Dunloy 1-8

Cushendall’s talisman Neill McManus celebrates after scoring a long range point early in the second half.

The goal at the end of the half was crucial for the Cuchullains challenge and while Cushendall would have been disappointed but they showed no signs of that at the start of the second half.  Fergus McCambridge forcing a top save from Ryan Elliott with barely a minute played after the restart.  McManus opened the scoring while the points were tit for tat in the early second half exchanges.  A trio of frees from Coby Cunning in answer to two points from McManus and while Cushendall held a one point lead, they wouldn’t register another score for ten minutes.  Points apiece from Paul Shiels and Cunning (free) brought Dunloy in front once again.

Cushendall responded with McManus (free) and McGill with an outstanding and instinctive point to edge the Ruairi’s ahead once again with 11 minutes of normal time remaining.  It was the Cuchullains who hit back this time with Keelan Molloy producing a moment of magic to land his second point of the match.

Cushendall’s challenge was now being hurt with a trio of wides in front of the target and while Coby edged the Cuchullain’s once again, the final changed in the 58th minute.  Substitute Gabriel McTaggart plucking the sliotar from the clouds before playing the perfect ball into Seaan Elliott on the inside forward line.  The 19 year old picked up at the second attempt and made no mistake with his effort, finding the back of McAllister’s net to give Dunloy a four point lead for the first time.

Conal Coby Cunning who scored nine points in Cuchullains win over Cushendall.

Cushendall responded with McManus landing his 10th white flag and eighth free of the hour but their fate was sealed with the next attack.  The was sliotar sent down the right where McTaggart was involved again.  Nigel Elliott retrieving the ball from a ruck and sending the cutest of passes into the path of his brother Seaan to his left.  The chance looked to have gone but Elliott got the better of his marker before scoring his second goal in the space of two minutes.

A seemingly unassailable six point lead going into injury time but Dunloy had to defend for their lives in those closing stages.  Keelan Molloy added his third of the afternoon but the Ruairi’s pushed for the goals they needed.  The Dunloy defence were immense in those scrambles and Ryan Elliott outstanding but substitute Christy McNaughton did breach the Dunloy goal line in the sixth minute of injury time.

It wasn’t enough for the Ruairi’s as Dunloy saw out the little time that remained to win the Volunteer Cup.

A superb game of hurling and a fine advert for the game within our county.  Dunloy were the victors on the day but Cushendall played like the great team they are and more than played their part in one of the best county finals in living memory.

Cuchullains advance to an Ulster semi-final with Ballycran on Sunday October 27.

Dunloy captain Paul Shiels lifts the cup after his team’s win over Cushendall in Sunday’s Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final at Pairc MacUílin, Ballycastle.

TEAMS

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

Subs: Conor Kinsella for A Crawford (34);Seaan Elliott for N McKeague (40); Shane Dooey for C Brogan (53); Gabriel McTaggart for R Molloy (57).

Scorers: Conal Cunning 0-9 (7 f’s); Seaan Elliott 2-00; Nigel Elliott 1-1; Keelan Molloy 0-3; Paul Shiels 0-1; Nicky McKeague 0-1; Eoin O’Neill 0-1

Cushendall: Conor McAllister; Martin Burke, Paddy Burke, Sean Delargy; Fred McCurry, Eoghan Campbell, Stephen Walsh; Niall McCormick, Scott Walsh; Neil McManus, Fergus McCambridge, Ryan McCambridge; Arron Graffin, Paddy McGill, Alex Delargy

Subs: Natty McNaughton for S Walsh (HT); Christy McNaughton for S Delargy (49); Eunan McKillop for A Graffin (57)

Scorers: Neil McManus 0-10 (8 f’s); Fergus McCambridge 1-1; Christy McNaughton 1-00; Eoghan Campbell 0-1; Niall McCormick 0-1; Paddy McGill 0-1; Alex Delargy 0-1

Referee: Colm McDonald (St Galls)

All the ‘Experts’ are tipping Dunloy….Ciaran Kearney will love this!

The experts have their say….

Our own ‘St Brendan’ has already given his prediction, unsurprisingly going for a Dunloy win so we decided to ask a few other media types and managers from around the county for their thoughts on the senior final…..

Hugh McCann – Loughgiel, Shamrocks Manager

It’s very hard to call.  Cushendall are reigning champions and have proved time and again that they will fight to the end and are very strong defensively.  Dunloy have a good blend of experienced players and some brilliant young players who if given the space will do a lot of damage.

They’ve already proved that they can mix it up in championship hurling, that along with the loss of some of Cushendall’s exoerienced players, I would have to say Dunloy for the win.

Verdict:                Dunloy

Tony McNulty – St Johns Manager

I think that if Dunloy can stay disciplined in the tackle and don’t concede frees, they can come through but from experience, if Cushendall get a sniff of a chance, they’ll not give up.

Dunloy to win but there won’t be much between the sides.

Verdict:                Dunloy

David Mohan – Belfast Media Group

One thing’s for sure: tomorrow’s final will have a much different level of intensity to the meeting between Dunloy and Cushendall in the group stages.

While Dunloy edged that fixture by one, the game was certainly lacking the bite of a straight-up knockout affair that ensures this repeat of the 2017 decider that was won by Gregory O’Kane’s Cuchullians will differ greatly.

Not that we can write-off that game altogether, as Cushendall did provide a bit of a blueprint of how they can get at the Dunloy defence.

Cormac McAllister’s long poc-outs and their tactic of going long and early did cause Dunloy some headaches and this could well be their approach again as they try to isolate Paddy McGill and Alex Delargy inside, flood the middle and not give Dunloy time or space to get into their stride.

Dunloy are best served by using pace and trying to hit their flying forwards with quality ball to get a gallop up. They should be aiming to use quick, incisive passes to create openings, while non-stop movement could be the key to unlocking a formidable full-back line.

The middle sector is where this game is likely to be won and lost with both half-back lines not just required to repel attacks, but launch their own so the delivery from this sector into the forwards is likely to have a huge bearing.

Cushendall are champions and won’t relinquish their title without a struggle, but that extra, bruising game against St John’s just seven days prior could come into play and for that reason, Dunloy may be a little fresher down the stretch to prevail by a couple.

Verdict: Dunloy

Liam Tunney – Unit Updates

Dunloy’s title defence last year ran into a savvy Loughgiel challenge and the pre-match shenanigans around the dugout both delayed the throw-in and de-railed Cúchullain minds.

Another year wiser and their young side exorcised those ghosts, grinding out a victory over Loughgiel that was born out of grit and character.

Ruairí Óg have again taken the long road to the Final having taken two games to dispatch the Johnnies but a sturdy defence and their uncanny knack for winning tight games booked their place.

It’s easy to bill this as Cushendall’s brawn meets Dunloy’s agility, but both teams have a healthy blend. The likes of Kevin Molloy and Conor McKinley provide strength for Cúchullain’s, while Ruairí Óg’s Alex Delargy and Niall McCormick can confidently dance their way through defences.

Ruairí Óg come in with that winning experience and will be rightly confident as reigning champions, but Dunloy appear to have added the bite that was so sorely absent last season as Loughgiel’s mocking grins leered at them through the Ballycastle rain.

The pups have matured and are hungry for more.

Verdict: Dunloy

Kevin Heron – Saffron Gael

I’m going to back Dunloy in Sunday’s hurling final.

Purely based on the fact that many of my early memories of Croke Park was going down to watch Dunloy on All-Ireland club hurling final day. We’d have been packed in the car down to go down and watch the Green and Gold.

Hopefully it’s a great final with plenty of drama, but the Cuchullains by five.

Verdict:                Dunloy

Dunloy to take back the title…the Gospel according to St Brendan

Saffron Gael’s Brendan McTaggart is an avid Dunloy fan, having grown up steeped in the traditions of the green and gold. Althought he has since moved across the border into Co Derry his heart is still in Pearse Park and on Sunday he hopes to see the Cuchullain’s claim back the title. The people of his native parish will be hoping he is right but a lot of others in Cushendall.. and beyond..who may well have other ideas.

By Brendan McTaggart

11 matches later and the race for the Volunteer Cup has come to the final hurdle.  Cushendall, reigning champions and Dunloy, the 2017 county kings in Páirc Mac Uílin in a winner takes all 60 minutes of hurling.  A repeat of the final from two years ago but more about that later.

First, we’ll take a look at the Ruairi’s in more depth.  A team who maybe don’t get the recognition their exploits deserve.  Perennial finalists yet a team who have went through changes in recent years.  From the team who reached the All-Ireland final just over three years ago, 10 from the 15 who started against Na Pairsaigh started against St Johns in the replay.  The Cushendall management have elected for Conor McAllister between the sticks, Eoin Gillan occupying a place on the bench while David Kearney, Shane McNaughton, Conor Carson, and Sean McAfee are not part of the panel anymore for one reason or another.  Natty McNaughton, Arron Graffin and Christy McNaughton were on the starting 15 and they have all been making their way back from injury but have featured at some stage in this years championship.

Even from last years county final, the Ruairi’s are likely to have just 10 players in their starting 15 on Sunday.  For a team to continue to be as successful as the Ruairi’s have, to go through as many changes as they have in a relatively short space of time is a serious achievement in itself. 

I suppose their one constant through the last number of years has been their defence.  Backboned by the Burke and McCurry brothers and the intelligence of Eoghan Campbell at centre half, it’s no wonder the Ruairi’s are and have been the team to beat.  The experience and graft of Sean Delargy and the emergence of Stephen Walsh this year have been the scourge of many attack in Antrim throughout 2019.  A quick look at the stats from their semi-final against show they conceded just 1-10 from open play in their two matches against the Johnnies.  A St Johns team who have a plethora of attacking threat and a St Johns team plenty had backed to make this years final.

If Cushendall have had any weakness this year, it’s in their attack.  They’ve shown glimpses of brilliance, notably Alex Delargy in the drawn semi-final and Paddy McGill when their backs were against the wall in the replay.  But they have made improvements in that area as the championship has progressed.  A sign they have timed their run to Páirc Mac Uílin to perfection.

Bringing Conor McAllister in as ‘keeper has added to the Ruairi’s game plan.  The Ruairi net minder possesses a huge poc out and by enlarge is accurate from his restarts.  Very rarely does he go short as they play to their strengths, leaving space for Alex Delargy and Paddy McGill on the inside although they elected for Cormac McClafferty last Sunday.  Aiden McNaughton will be a loss if Sunday comes to soon for his wrist injury.  His performance against St Johns in the drawn game was exemplary around the middle of the pitch while the Ruairi’s could be forced into a change in their defence pending any potential appeal over Joe McCurry’s red card.

The talent coming through the ranks in Dunloy has been no secret.  Four minor championship winning sides in a row is one thing, transferring that potential into a senior shirt has been the conundrum for the Dunloy management team.  The Pearse Park side have been getting it right behind the scenes however.  They’ve been integrating those players throughout the league and against Loughgiel in the semi-final, they had eight players in their starting 15 who won the minor championship four years ago, seven from three years, three from two years previous and one from last years team.  Two more made an appearance off the bench while one sustained a long term injury towards the end of the league campaign.  The age profile of the Dunloy team is young and they are a team who are still learning.  A team that have yet to reach their potential yet the team many have had installed as the pre-championship favourites.

They won the 2017 championship with 20 minutes of breath-taking hurling against Cushendall in the final before losing to Slaughtneil in the Ulster championship.  Perhaps that match was the initial blueprint that Loughgiel perfected last year when they ambushed the Cuchullains at the semi-final stage.  Flood the midfield and defence, suffocate the space and work, work, work.  Dunloy learned from that encounter last year and met fire with fire against the Shamrocks to reach the final.  The Cuchullains had been famed in recent times for their fast, fluent and stylish brand of hurling but against Loughgiel they went into the trenches.  Much of their attacking play for the past two years came from Ryan Elliott’s poc outs, in the semi-final the Cuchullains targeted the rucks, upped their work rate and intensity while using the guile of Paul Shiels and the experience of Kevin Molloy to supply their forward line.  A forward line who can take the game away from their opponents in the blink of an eye, as Cushendall know.  The frightening fact of it all is they’re nowhere near their potential.  Conal Cunning and Keelan Molloy are not the finished article but are two of the brightest attacking talents in the county.  Seán Elliott is still a pup and in his first full year as a senior player while Eoin O’Neill is back in the ranks after a summer in America but a full season with the Antrim county team behind him where he didn’t look out of place in a Saffron shirt.

Conal Cunning has been in fine form for Dunloy

For all the youthful exuberance the Cuchullains possess, the older hands in the squad are vital cogs to the Dunloy machine.  Conor McKinley at full back and Kevin Molloy at centre half have been through the bad and good times in a Dunloy shirt while Chrissy Brogan’s move out the field has been an inspired move by the Dunloy management team.  His ability to catch clean ball and outright stubbornness to win dirty ball in rucks shone against Loughgiel and will be vital on Sunday.

Where will it be won?  That depends largely on what Dunloy show up on Sunday.  The attacking team who play a frightening brand of ‘no fear’ hurling or the pragmatic Dunloy who will meet fire with fire and go into the trenches with Cushendall.  Two years ago, ‘Option A’ did the trick while they needed to develop an ‘Option B’.  They’ve done that and it was enough to make the final, the trouble with Option B however is the Ruairi’s are the master of it. 

The match in Dunloy at the start of the championship saw Dunloy change their game plan and although they got the job done on that occasion, the Ruairi’s were short a few.  Yes, it was a phoney war of sorts with the nature of the round robin format and a flat occasion despite the large crowd in attendance but Dunloy may see it as the eye opener they needed.  Maybe it’s time to stick to the tried and trusted.  There aren’t many who go into the trenches against Cushendall in the heat of the championship and come out smiling.

Prediction time.  You won’t get me backing against my own team.  I joked last weekend that if Dunloy were to play Tipperary I’d make a case and argue it through for them coming out on top but I do think they will overcome Cushendall on Sunday.  Their defence has conceded just 1-22 from open play in their three championship matches while the Dunloy attack has averaged over nine points from play and just over 18 points per match overall.  Games aren’t won on averages but Dunloy have the players capable of winning the big moments and players capable of the pieces of brilliance finals like these can be decided upon.  ‘Big Ears’ to come home.