Cushendall show they championship credentials to see off rivals St John's
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship semi-final replay: St John’s, Belfast 2-12 Ruairi Og, Cushendall 3-13
IF there is no such thing as sporting hoodoos, the sceptics should talk to the St John’s hurlers.
With a one-man advantage and leading by four points at the break the ‘Johnnies’ looked as though they would coast into their first senior county final since 1994.
In last season’s two semi-final encounters with Cushendall, St John’s had chances but let them slip.
Last week in Ballycastle, they couldn't clinch the deal either.
Yesterday was the same story.
Half-time was their momentum breaker.
The west Belfast men emerged for the second half but that’s all they did.
Cushendall’s Joe McCurry was sent off just before the break after appearing to strike Michael Bradley right in front of the St John’s dug-out.
When order was restored St John’s sub Aaron Bradley was also red-carded for aiming a punch at an opponent.
But, within nine minutes of the restart, defending champions Cushendall had mined 2-1 to forge ahead 3-6 to 2-7.
This is what good championship teams do. They don’t panic and trust the process.
St John’s managed to draw level three times in the second period, but their resistance was finally broken in the closing stages when the Ruairi Ogs outscored them 0-5 to 0-1 to win by a handsome four points.
Paddy McGill split St John’s posts with two beauties in the closing stages and Neil McManus was dead-eyed from placed balls.
This will be a defeat that will linger for a long time with the St John’s hurlers.
They harassed the champions brilliantly in the first half and Padraig Nugent continued where he left off from last week’s tie.
Across two memorable games, Nugent hit 1-22 and still ended up on the losing team. Defensively, St John’s made a raft of unforced errors – and a canny opponent like Cushendall didn't have to be asked twice.
“At half-time I thought we had them on the rack and we’d come out and do it and we didn’t,” said ‘Johnnies’ boss Tony McNulty.
“They came at us strong and we gave them two soft goals. I don’t know what to say. It will be a tough few weeks because they’ve worked so hard over the past two or three years.
“Last year we were always chasing it, whereas this year we were in front. I’m just gutted.”
Padraig Nugent surprised the Cushendall defence by going for goal with a close range free to open the scoring after five minutes. But eight minutes later, Alex Delargy set up the unmarked Niall McCormack who buried his effort past St John’s ‘keeper Simon Doherty.
But the Johnnies responded when the impressive Peter McCallin scuffed to the net after Conor McAllister had initially saved Domhnall Nugent’s drive to put them 2-3 to 1-4 ahead of Ruairi Ogs.
Neil McManus was proving a handful for the St John’s defence in the opening half, but they had virtually nullified every other Cushendall forward, while Padraig Nugent kept the scoreboard ticking over with a series of confident conversions.
But then half-time came and St John’s didn’t resume yesterday’s semi-final with the same fearless intensity of the first half.
In the 38th minute, Alex Delargy found the net after pouncing on a rebound effort from the hugely impressive Paddy Burke.
A minute later, Fergus McCambridge – the man who grabbed a last-gasp equaliser in Ballycastle seven days earlier - rippled the net after Alex Delargy’s first shot was saved.
Cushendall boss Ciaran Kearney said afterwards: “People said to me last week that we got out of jail but the game’s not over until the final whistle. Our lads will not stop.
“One of their boys said last week that they know we’re always going to come back at them. So I said to our lads at half-time: ‘They know we’re going to come back at them. If we keep piling the pressure on we’ll come back.’ We have big characters in our changing room. One thing about us is we don’t panic.”
McManus was nerveless from placed balls in the closing stages as St John’s unravelled, with Ciaran Johnston getting red-carded for a dangerous tackle on Paddy Burke in stoppage-time.
Cushendall will compete in their 11th county final in 12 years next weekend as they aim to avenge their 2017 final loss to Cuchullain’s Dunloy.
St John’s, Belfast: S Doherty; A McMahon, R McNulty (0-1), S Wilson; S Tierney, C Johnston, C Morgan; S Shannon, P McCallin (1-0); M Dudley (0-1), S Wilson, P Nugent (1-9, 1-0 free, 0-8 frees, 0-1 ’65); D Nugent, M Bradley, C Johnston (0-1) Subs: D McKeogh for R McNulty (h/t), O Donnelly for P McCallin (44), C Bohill for M Dudley (55)
Yellow cards: R McNulty (30), M Dudley (32)
Red card: Ciaran Johnston (60 +3)
Ruairi Og, Cushendall: C McAllister (0-1 free); M Burke, P Burke, J McCurry; F McCurry, E Campbell, Stephen Walsh, S Delargy, Scott Walsh; N McManus (0-8, 0-6 frees, 0-1 ’65), C McClafferty, N McCormack (1-1); F McCambridge (1-0), P McGill (0-2), A Delargy (1-1) Subs: R McCambridge for C McClafferty (h/t), D McNaughton for Scott Walsh (37), C McNaughton for S Delargy (53)
Blood substitution: C McNaughton for R McCambride (49-51)
Yellow card: M Burke (54)
Red card: J McCurry (30)
Referee: C McDonald