Castleblayney snatch winner in dying seconds to break Cushendun hearts in Ulster decider
Ulster Club Junior Hurling final: Castleblayney (Monaghan) 1-14 Robert Emmet’s Cushendun (Antrim) 0-16
TEARS flowed among the hurlers of Robert Emmet’s Cushendun yesterday afternoon as Castleblayney climbed the steps of the main stand in The Athletic Grounds to lift the Ulster junior title.
As far as finals go, this was as dramatic as it gets.
It was a heartbreaking end to an unforgettable season for the small north Antrim club.
After winning their first junior title in 55 years back in September, they didn’t want this epic journey to end.
And it didn’t look as though it would continue as they led this enthralling decider from the first minute until deep into stoppage-time, when they were finally pegged back by the gutsy Monaghan champions.
Fergal Rafter converted his 10th placed ball of the day from a tricky angle in the fourth minute of stoppage-time to put Castleblayney in front for the first time.
Before Rafter’s winner the Antrim champions spurned two chances to edge in front after Fintan Finnegan levelled for ’Blayney in the 59th minute - but impressive Emmet’s pair Conleith McNeill and Conor McHugh saw their respective frees from distance drift wide of Castleblayney’s posts.
For large chunks of yesterday’s provincial final Cushendun were the better side but they just couldn’t put enough daylight between themselves and the 2014 Ulster intermediate champions.
More mistakes crept into Cushendun’s play as the second half wore on and Jimmy Lacey’s seasoned Castleblayney crew took full advantage.
“We just came up short at the end,” said dejected Cushendun manager Chris Dornan.
“It’s hard to keep my emotions in check now because the work the boys put in… Two years ago we had six at training. Now we’ve a panel of 32 or 33.
“We are up to intermediate next year and hopefully we can give that a rattle. But that didn’t do us justice today.
“In the first half we missed a few chances, we had a goal chance and a couple of frees drifted wide.
“Looking back,” Dornan added, “we were four up at half-time [0-9 to 0-5] and all we had to do was win the second half. We didn’t win the half and that’s why we were beaten.
“It’s just heartbreaking. You can see what it means to those boys – they’re in tears there.
“I still think we were the better hurling team. We didn’t get the rub of the green and a few decisions went against us.”
Crucial to Castleblayney’s remarkable comeback was key attacker Mark Treanor being passed fit for yesterday’s final after suffering a broken bone in his hand during a recent challenge game.
Treanor grabbed the only goal of the game in the 46th minute, escaping the clutches of Tom Scally before firing low into the net, which reduced Cushendun’s lead to just two points.
At that point, the comeback was well and truly on.
“Mark Treanor is an exceptional athlete,” said ’Blayney boss Jimmy Lacey.
“People were probably thinking I was being coy during the week about whether he would play or not, but his hand is still sore when goes to pick up the ball. It just shows the man he is and the effect on the game that he had.”
With the help of a stiff breeze at their backs, Mark Treanor’s major and Rafter’s accuracy from frees - some of them soft enough awards - the Monaghan champions completed an unlikely comeback in the dying seconds.
Cushendun corner-back Jack McKay, who played the shirt off his back, was caught in possession and was forced to foul his man in what turned out to be Castleblayney’s last, triumphant assault on Cushendun’s posts.
Rafter stepped up and fired the ball over to win it.
Lacey, however, insisted the foundations of yesterday’s victory were dug in a difficult first half. Conleith McNeill’s confident free in the 23rd minute put the Emmet’s 0-8 to 0-2 in front, but Rafter hit the next three scores to steady the favourites.
“Reflecting on it, I thought our first half was exceptional because we were 0-8 to 0-2 down and it took serious character to get back and we hit three or four points after that. And that was the winning of the game,” said Lacey.
“We mentioned at half-time we were just after winning that half. There was a very strong wind there and to keep it to four points was a massive achievement.
“In the second half we gave away a few frees and the boys were hanging their heads but you have to believe you’ll get your chance, you’ll get your chance.”
‘Blayney captain Peter Treanor held the defence together at times as his team-mates fouled too readily in the second half that allowed McNeill to convert three frees.
Although the ‘Blayney centre half-back was sent off in stoppage-time for hitting Cushendun substitute Niall McAuley, it didn’t have any notable impact.
There were arguably more eye-catching performances in Cushendun ranks as all of their starting forwards registered scores.
At the back Sean Hamilton, Jack McKay and Donal O’Hara performed heroically at times but a combination of missed chances and ‘Blayney’s never-say-die attitude saw this decider finally turn in the Monaghan club’s favour right at the death.
“We weren’t expecting to be hurling in November for a club as small as Cushendun,” said Dornan.
“On another day we could have won by three of four points. I wish Castleblayney all the best and I hope they go on and win in two weeks’ time [against the British champions] in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.”
Undefeated in league and championship this season, ’Blayney won’t be easily beaten in the All-Ireland series and even though Cushendun lost yesterday’s final in heartbreaking circumstances they are a club re-born by the tumultuous events of the last couple of months.
Castleblayney: P Collins; C Merrick, E Leonard, C McNally; B Connor, P Treanor, J McHugh; B Flanagan, P Finnegan; H Byrne, F Rafter (0-11 0-9 frees, 0-1 ’65), F Finnegan (0-1); C Callan, B McGuigan, M Treanor (1-2) Subs: A Kenny for C Callan (40),
Yellow cards: B O’Connor (51), H Byrne (62)
Red card: P Treanor (63)
Cushendun: E Magee; S Hamilton, A Corbett, J McKay; M Scally, D O’Hara, T Scally; M McCartin, C McHugh (0-3, 0-2 frees, 0-1 ’65); P Bannon (0-1), E Duffin (0-1), D McQuillan (0-2); J Morgan (0-2), C McNeill (0-5 frees), D Kilgore (0-2) Subs: E McQuillan for E Duffin (35), N McAuley for P Bannon (40), RJ McQuillan for J Morgan (53)
Yellow card: C McHugh (49)
Referee: T Conway (Derry)