St John's rue their chance to slay Cushendall as sides end level
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Ruairi Og, Cushendall 2-16 St John’s Belfast 0-22
STANDING in the middle of the field after the final whistle, St John’s selector Brian McFall was fit to be tied.
The ‘Johnnies’ led twice in stoppage-time but still couldn’t put away rivals Cushendall in a dramatic semi-final clash that finished all square in Ballycastle.
Played in front of a huge crowd, you won’t see a more tense or controversial finish for the rest of the club season than the closing stages of yesterday’s clash.
Shea Shannon’s outrageous sideline put the Belfast men ahead, 0-21 to 2-14, entering the final throes.
Seconds later, though, Alex Delargy wriggled free at the other end to level and bring his tally to an impressive 1-3.
But there was still time for the two sides to exchange another point apiece to set up a mouthwatering replay next weekend.
It seemed a harsh decision by referee Colum Cunning to blow Cushendall’s Joe McCurry for over-carrying in the middle of the field.
Brilliant from placed balls all afternoon, Padraig Nugent saw his long range effort come back off Cushendall’s post before burying the resultant ’65 to put St John’s ahead again.
It looked as though St John’s would finally slay Cushendall and reach their first county final since 1994.
But up popped Fergus McCambridge, perpetual motion all day, who capitalised on some poor defensive play from St John’s to force a replay in the last attack of the game.
As if there wasn't enough drama, the umpire waved McCambridge's effort wide, but the decision was quickly overturned by Cunning's linesman who was adamant McCambridge's shot was in fact good.
Rather than berate the linesman’s decision, McFall was more critical of the St John’s defence for not clearing the danger when they had the chance.
“We should have had the ball cleared but we stupidly gave the ball back to them,” said the former county ace.
“They went forward, the umpire has given it wide and the linesman has given it. I didn’t see it.
“But we had chances to win it. It’s hard to take.
“We just can’t seem to get away from them, no matter what. We were five points up in last year’s semi-final, but we just can’t put them away and they come back to sting you.
“Cushendall got a draw at the end and fair play to them, but it’s one that got away from us, to be honest.”
St John’s recovered well after coughing up two first-half goals and in the second period they were the better of the two sides.
Just when Cushendall needed more physical presence in their attack, up stepped substitute Donal ‘Natty’ McNaughton, injured for most of the season, to hit two sublime points in the final 10 minutes.
Up to that point, St John’s were winning free after free in the scoring zone – some were undoubtedly soft but the Cushendall defence needed to show more discipline at times, as the nerveless Nugent hit the spot every time.
The Johnnies, who came out on the losing end of two pulsating matches with the Ruairi Ogs last season, struggled to contain Neil McManus in the opening half.
The county ace helped himself to six first-half points (0-4 frees) while Alex Delargy rammed home the first major of the afternoon in the seventh minute while in the 23rd minute Paddy McGill capitalised on a poor puck-out from ‘Johnnies’ ‘keeper Simon Doherty and the resultant shot squirmed over the line.
Ciaran Kearney’s side led 2-9 to 0-12 at the break, but without some of their key players they struggled to keep a hungry St John’s team at bay in the second half, and the Belfast men finally edged in front thanks to Nugent’s 57th minute free.
While Kearney was unhappy with aspects of his side’s second-half performance, he praised their resilience and their ability to grab two late equalisers to deny St John’s.
“Is there more in us? Absolutely,” Kearney said. “To be fair to St John’s they came back at us. We went one down a couple of times and came back. That shows the never-say-die attitude this group has. Until the referee blows his final whistle then the game is not over.”
He added: “We talked all week about the value of the bench. ‘Natty’ gave us something, Cormac McClafferty gave a great ball in to Alex Delargy to score and [Arron] Graffin came in to settle the head a bit.
“But, listen, we’re not out. We are in the same position as we were last year and we won the championship. I don’t see why we can’t do that again.”
Ruairi Og, Cushendall: C McAllister; M Burke, P Burke, J McCurry; F McCurry, E Campbell, S Walsh; A McNaughton (0-2), S Walsh; N McManus (0-7, 0-2 frees), R McCambridge (0-1), S Delargy; F McCambridge (0-1), P McGill (1-0), A Delargy (1-3) Subs: D McNaughton (0-2) for S Walsh (47), E McKillop for R McCambridge (50), A Graffin for P McGill (61)
Yellow cards: P McGill (17), F McCurry (51)
St John’s: S Doherty; S Shannon (0-3, 0-1 sideline), R McNulty, L Heenan; S Tierney, C Johnston (0-1), C Morgan; O Donnelly, D Nugent (0-1); A McMahon, P McCallin (0-1), P Nugent (0-13, 0-10 frees, 0-65); M Dudley, M Bradley (0-1), C Johnston (0-2) Subs: J Bohill for L Heenan (22), B McFall for C Morgan (61)
Referee: C Cunning (Dunloy)