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.
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.
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)