Agony at the end for Cushendall as St Thomas's survive to book SHC final spot
AIB All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship: Ruairi Og, Cushendall 2-11 St Thomas's, Galway 0-18
AT HALF-time Cushendall’s cause seemed lost. The Fat Lady hadn’t started singing but she was, as they say, clearing her throat.
A lady (I don’t know what shape she was) in the stand did start, though.
“Far across yonder blue lies a true fairy land…” she sang in a wonderful soprano and, one by one, the fans in the packed stand and Parnell Park (the crowd was around 7,000) stopped talking and joined in or listened as she built to a crescendo.
‘Imagine the picture of heaven it would be, ‘Where the Green Glens of Antrim are caaaaaa-lllling tooooooo MEEEEEEEE!!!’
The fans from the glens roared with a new belief and the Galway people applauded. Little did they know that the songstress was merely a warm-up act because a game that looked over would surpass the half-time entertainment with a climax that was even more thrilling.
Cushendall trailed 1-3 to 13 points as they took up their positions for the second half after being totally outplayed by a slick St Thomas’s side that looked a class above.
Conor Carson was thrown on at full-forward and suddenly, with the wind at their backs, there was intensity from the men in maroon. Before long they were looking like a team of capable hurlers and it was a thrilling contest.
Neil McManus, who had netted a first half penalty, landed a 65 and, although Shane Cooney cancelled it out, Eoghan Campbell had the Cushendall fans on their feet with a brilliant run and finish.
Both sides added points before Donal McNaughton, who had been blotted out of the game by Fintan Burke in St Thomas’s superb half-back line, found space and played an inch-perfect pass to Fergus McCambridge with a flick of his wrist.
McCambridge ran and ran until he could see the whites of Gerald Murray’s eyes and then he knocked the sliothar past him and, 10 minutes in the second, half, there was only three in it.
Carson passed to Paddy McGill and then it was two, Sean Delargy kept out Brendan Farrell to keep it that way and then McManus passed to McCambridge, who leapt to catch and drove the sliothar between the posts to leave it 2-8 to 0-15 after 48 minutes.
St Thomas’s were panicking, their management team held a hasty pow-wow on the sideline and in the stand the fans chanted: ‘Ruairis, Ruairis, Ruairis’.
Arron Graffin won the St Thomas’s puck-out and McGill equalised.
With 10 minutes left it seemed that St Thomas’s were there for the taking but, crucially, Cushendall couldn’t get their noses in front and Darragh Burke struck from distance to edge the Galway men back ahead before James Regan got another.
At the other end, Cushendall forced a 65 and McManus launched it over the bar. Paddy Burke (one of nine players with that surname on the field, two for the ’Dall, seven for St Thomas’s including five brothers – a Godsend to any club) battled to win the puck-out and was awarded a free from almost the same spot. McManus struck it even more sweetly and the sides were level again.
Five minutes of injury-time were signalled and the sides went at it like a couple of tiring heavyweights in the final round. St Thomas’s attacked and Cushendall repelled them until the ball broke to the Galway side’s sweeper David Sherry way out on the left wing.
He isn’t noted for his scores but he let fly and the sliothar soared over the bar. There was still time for a comeback and Parnell Park held its breath as McManus sent Donal McNaughton clear on the right. A point would have forced extra-time, a goal would surely have won it.
McNaughton hit it low and on target, but it was blocked by Cathal Burke and, cruelly, that was that for Cushendall.
“If it had gone over the bar we’d have got another go at it but, look, the full-back did well,” said manager Eamon Gillan afterwards.
“If it had gone into the back of the net he would have been a hero and that’s the way it works in this game – you can be a villain or a hero. Donal’s had a great year.”
He added: “To be honest, I thought we were going to win it. When we went level I thought ‘there’s enough time to win this match’ but there was enough time to lose it as well.
“I’m gutted for the boys because they put in a big shift and they really didn’t do themselves justice in the first half. They were so cool all day and they looked really up for it, they didn’t look nervous although their touch let them down a bit in the first half. St Thomas’s dug deep but we had them rattled.”
St Thomas’s can now look forward to an All-Ireland final against Kilkenny’s Ballyhale Shamrocks and the Galway side’s manager Kevin Lally expects the underdog tag for the decider.
“We’ve been tested to the limit and, let’s be fair about it, Ballyhale aren’t going to lose any sleep over that. They’re not,” he said.
“They’re going to go in as raging hot favourites in the final. They are, and that’s not trying to big them up or anything. We only got five scores in the second half, which is disappointing over 37 minutes. “We’ve loads to work on in the next four or five weeks.”
Cushendall: E Gillan; D Kearney, M Burke, S Delargy; E Campbell (0-1), A Graffin, P Burke; F McCambridge, N McManus (1-6, 1-0 penalty, 0-2 65s, 0-4 frees); D McNaughton, E McKillop, R McCambridge; P McGill (0-2), S McAfee (0-1), A Delargy
Subs: C Carson for R McCambridge (ht), S Walsh for S Delargy (54)
Yellow cards: R McCambridge (6), Campbell (16), McManus (60)
St Thomas's: G Murray; C Burke, D Sherry (0-1); D Cooney, S Cooney (0-1 free), F Burke; J Regan (0-2), David Burke; Darragh Burke (0-6, 0-4 frees), E Burke (0-3), B Burke (0-2); B Farrell, C Cooney (0-1), K Burke (0-1)
Subs: D McGlynn (0-1) for K Burke (34), S Skehill for B Farrell (58)
Yellow cards: Mahoney (26), Murray (55)
Referee: P O’Dwyer (Carlow)