Cushendall are back on top in Antrim after slaying rivals Loughgiel Shamrocks
Antrim Senior Hurling Championship: Loughgiel Shamrocks 0-15 Ruairi Og Cushendall 2-12
THE massive roar that went up from the Ruairi Og contingent from the other side of the field at the final whistle swept through the Loughgiel Shamrocks supporters like a deep chill.
In their four previous final meetings since the turn of the decade, the Shamrocks always had Cushendall’s number: 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2016.
At a heaving Páirc Mac Uílín yesterday, the Ruairi Ogs ended that hoodoo and were deserved winners. But it took a Loughgiel man to plot the Shamrocks’ downfall.
Eamonn Gillan lost back-to-back finals as Loughgiel manager – in 2003 and ’04 – but in his first year as Cushendall boss he delivered the Volunteer Cup.
“I feel exhausted,” said Gillan afterwards.
“This means a lot to me because I’ve been in a couple of finals before as manager and lost them for Loughgiel. I am a Loughgiel man but I’ve been living in Cushendall for the last 35 years.”
He added: “I am delighted for Cushendall; I am part of the Cushendall community now but I feel a bit for Loughgiel as well.”
After being approached by senior players Neil McManus and Arron Graffin at the start of the year to take the job, Gillan couldn’t refuse - and it proved the right decision.
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Loughgiel Shamrocks boss Johnny Campbell had no complaints afterwards and gave a very concise and brutally honest assessment of yesterday’s pulsating decider.
“There was no question the better team won,” he said.
“The game was played on Cushendall’s terms. We just couldn’t get our players into the game and I suppose that makes a difference on big days.
“They won too many individual battles all over the field for us to get anything going.
“Going 4-2 up was the biggest margin we had but goals win games, as the cliché goes, and it proved to be the case today.
“We lost too much around the middle third and they capitalised, they supported each other a wee bit better than we did. They were just better at it than us.”
Goals either side of half-time from Paddy Burke and Conor Carson were like daggers through Loughgiel’s heart.
In the 23rd minute, Burke stole forward from his full-back position to finish off a flowing move that involved Carson catching and off-loading Neil McManus’s long pass.
Burke’s composed finish put Cushendall 1-5 to 0-7 ahead and, more importantly, it settled the Ruairi Ogs after a difficult start.
And just when Loughgiel threatened to turn the screw on their rivals in the final 10 minutes, Conor Carson hammered the ball past DD Quinn in the 51st minute to put Cushendall 2-10 to 0-12 in front.
Quinn got his hurl to Carson’s pile driver but looked on with anguish as the sloithar spun into the Loughgiel net.
The Shamrocks didn’t recover from either major and never really penetrated the Cushendall defence.
Too much rested on James McNaughton’s shoulders who hurled the shirt off his back for Loughgiel.
The county star hit 0-9 (0-6 frees) but the scoring burden wasn’t shared around sufficiently.
McNaughton, though, left everything on the field and his incredible driving run and score in the 58th minute was the best score of the afternoon.
But with Cushendall dominating midfield, McNaughton was kept to the fringes of yesterday’s final at times.
Likewise, Daniel McCloskey looked dangerous in the corner for Loughgiel, hitting three from play, but he didn’t see enough possession.
If James McNaughton was good, Cushendall can thank the heavens for Neil McManus.
He might have scuffed a couple of placed balls that put his side under pressure at times but everything else he did was both flawless and inspirational.
As Loughgiel searched for a goal in the closing stages, McManus plucked two dangerous balls from under his own crossbar to preserve Cushendall’s three-point lead.
His distribution was exceptional and his outstanding 53rd minute point from a difficult angle put the brakes on Loughgiel’s second half charge as they had hit three of the last four points and closed the gap to three at that stage.
Eoghan Campbell wasn’t far behind McManus. Campbell makes the sweeper’s role look easy as he made umpteen solo runs out of defence.
He also bagged a beautiful score after McManus had won yet another one of DD Quinn’s puck-outs before setting up his team-mate.
Cushendall’s direct style unnerved their rivals, particularly in the first half, as Carson caused all sorts of stress in the Loughgiel back-line.
“Even though we were playing with a two-man full-forward line we knew Carson could do damage from the last day,” said Gillan.
“The direct ball didn’t work just as well in the second half.”
Loughgiel's veteran star Liam Watson was introduced at the start of the second half but he wasn’t given any space to work in as Paddy Burke, Sean Delargy and Arron Graffin fought for 50-50 balls like demons.
And yet, the day started so promisingly for the Shamrocks. Tiernan Coyle notched two super points from midfield and Joey Scullion found his range with another.
But once Paddy Burke raced clear unopposed to fire past Quinn in the 23rd minute, Cushendall took control.
The Ruairi Ogs should have been further ahead than 1-8 to 0-9 at half-time and always kept Loughgiel alive in the closing stages when they failed to convert several easy chances.
Had Loughgiel grabbed a draw it would have been rough justice on the eventual champions.
As Cushendall celebrated their 14th county championship in the Lurig Bar last night, they were probably just as surprised as anyone to hear of Ballycran’s fantastic win over Slaughtneil in Ulster yesterday.
After a couple of disappointing years, the Ruairi Ogs are back. The celebratory roar at the final whistle said as much.
Loughgiel Shamrocks: DD Quinn; P Gillan, N McGarry, R McCloskey; T McCloskey, D McMullan, O McFadden; M McFadden, T Coyle (0-2); J Scullion (0-1), J McNaughton (0-9, 0-6 frees), D McKinley; D McCloskey (0-3), E McCloskey, S Casey Subs: L Watson for S Casey (h/t), M Connolly for O McFadden (49), S McGrath for P Gillan (53)
Yellow cards: E McCloskey (44)
Ruairi Og Cushendall: E Gillan; A Graffin, P Burke (1-0), M Burke; S Delargy, D Kearney, F McCurry; E Campbell (0-1), A Delargy; C Carson (1-1), P McGill (0-2, 0-1 free), R McCambridge (0-1); F McCambridge, N McManus (0-4, 0-3 frees), D McNaughton (0-3) Subs: E McKillop for F McCambridge (49), S Walsh for F McCurry (53), N McCormick for R McCambridge (58), S McAfee for C Carson (61)
Yellow cards: D McNaughton (19)
Referee: C Cunning (Dunloy)