Loughgiel land first blow in championship opener - but bigger battles lie ahead
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship Group Two: Loughgiel Shamrocks 2-13 Ruairi Og, Cushendall 2-10
LOUGHGIEL may have drawn first blood at Fr Healy Park yesterday, but it was hard to escape the feeling that the Shamrocks and Cushendall may not have seen the last of each other in this year’s condensed championship.
Perhaps with that in mind, there was an element of shadow boxing on the sidelines at least, as both Hugh McCann and Cushendall counterpart Eamonn Gillan opted to hold marquee names in reserve for bigger days ahead.
Liam Watson has come out of retirement for this campaign but his return remains on ice while, according to Gillan, Neil McManus “could have possibly played 10 minutes” if needed as he works his way back from damaged ankle ligaments.
It goes without saying most days, but Cushendall could have done with him as five different men squandered nine scoring opportunities from frees between them. Had the dead-eyed McManus been sizing up the posts instead, it could be the Ruairi Og sitting with a foot in the county semi-final.
A far more efficient Loughgiel were good value for the win. The breeze at their backs, they streaked into an early five point lead and would keep their noses in front for the rest of an afternoon when the sun overhead was unforgiving on men trying to get up to championship pace.
Free-flowing hurling was at a premium, but then those with the golden tickets arrived knowing what to expect when they pulled into the park. They didn’t leave disappointed.
And while there was no Watson for Loughgiel, the returning Neil McGarry rolled back the years with an inspired performance at full-back, with Eddie McCloskey also central to many of their best moments.
The livewire James McNaughton did damage all day but it was two goals in the space of three second half minutes, from Eddie McCloskey and Callum McKendry, that really set the Shamrocks on the way to victory.
The same pair combined to good effect for McCloskey’s 44th minute strike, before McKendry picked up a break and drove into the square, giving Conor McAllister no chance with an unerring finish.
However, Cushendall could have snatched a draw right at the death, having battled their way into contention from eight points back with a quarter of an hour to go.
Goalkeeper McAllister slammed a 20 metre free to the back of the net a minute after McKendry’s goal, and when Alex Delargy turned and shot beyond Chrissy McConnell it set up a nervy finish.
Over four years on from his last competitive outing in maroon, Shane McNaughton looked like he had never been away as the normally New York-based actor returned to the stage with an impressive 10 minute cameo, sending over two beautiful points to leave three in it.
“Shane’s home for a good while,” said Gillan. “His only problem is he hasn’t had enough training, but there’s nothing wrong with his hurling.”
With time fast running out, McAllister sent a dangerous delivery into the square from deep and, as a cluster of bodies all battled to get their hands on the descending sliothar, the towering Conor Carson came down to earth with a bump after tangling with Tony McCloskey.
Referee Colum Cunning signalled for a penalty straight away, leaving the Loughgiel crowd disgusted.
McAllister make the long walk up the field. Fifteen minutes earlier he had gone high to the middle of the goal, but this time he sent his shot hard and low – and just a bit too far to the right as it cannoned off the foot of the upright and back into play.
Loughgiel eventually cleared their lines after a frantic 20 seconds, with Cunning’s long whistle signalling the end of a game that still only represents the very start of what could be a long road ahead for both.
“Ah listen, it was the referee’s call. I was too far away from it so I couldn’t really see,” said McCann with a wry smile when asked about the late penalty award.
“Some decisions go for you, some don’t but I would day justice was maybe done when they hit the post at the finish there. Cushendall never gave up, they kept hurling as they always do, so you’re in a dogfight from the word go.
“Our lads showed great character, and for not having much match practice it was brilliant - but it’s still only a group game. Cushendall will be there or thereabouts come the end of this.”
Loughgiel native Gillan wasn’t too downbeat as he served up his honest assessment, with Cushendall’s attention now switching towards Sunday’s clash with St Enda’s.
“It must be unheard of to go into a championship without having played a league game, but that’s the year we’re in,” he said.
“At the end of the day we were closer than maybe we should’ve been. They were slightly sharper, they were taking their chances much better than we were. We’re still there.
“We’re all sore at the minute but it’s not a disaster by any means. I know there’s a lot more in them and when the crunch comes, they’ll step up.”
Loughgiel: C O’Connell; J Coyle, N McGarry, T McCloskey; Declan McCloskey (0-1), D McMullan, D Gillan; Dan McCloskey (0-1), D McKinley; J McNaughton (0-8, 0-6 frees), C McKendry (1-0), E McCloskey (1-0); S Casey, B McCarry (0-1), S McGrath (0-2).
Subs: O McFadden for D Gillan (36), S Dobbin for D McMullan (53), M McFadden for C McKendry (56)
Yellow cards: J McNaughton (26), D McMullan (39), E McCloskey (60), T McCloskey (60+3)
Cushendall: M McAllister (1-0, free); J McCurry, M Burke, A Graffin; F McCambridge, P Burke, R McCambridge; A McNaughton, E Campbell; P McGill (0-3, 0-2 frees), N McCormick, A Delargy (1-1); S McAfee, C McNaughton (0-4, 0-3 frees, 0-1 65), D Delargy.
Subs: C Carson for C McNaughton (26), S McNaughton (0-2) for S McAfee (55)
Yellow card: A McNaughton (30)
Referee: C Cunning (Dunloy)