Michael Bradley grabs last gasp winner for St John's against gutsy Rossa
Antrim Senior Hurling Championship Group One: O’Donovan Rossa, Belfast 1-16 St John’s, Belfast 0-20
UNTIL Michael Bradley landed the winner with the last splendid strike of the game, this was a torturous afternoon for the St John’s hurlers.
For long spells, they couldn’t find any rhythm in their play, while Rossa were locating the posts that little bit easier every time they ventured up the pitch.
Six head just before the break. Four ahead after 40 minutes. And still three ahead after 57 minutes, it was looking good for Colly Murphy’s charges.
But, by the time referee Darren McKeown blew his whistle, they found themselves one down.
Having knocked on the championship door in the last couple of seasons, the Johnnies drew upon on their experience to grind out victory and put themselves in pole position in Group One to reach the knock-out stages with Ballycastle and Cushendall to come.
Still acclimatising to top flight hurling after spells in the intermediate ranks, Rossa deserve immense credit for what they served up yesterday.
Wearing number six but playing in the forward line, Dominic McEnhill’s smooth economy saw him hit three brilliant points from play as Rossa asserted themselves from the start.
After a tentative opening free, James Connolly was more confident from placed balls thereafter for Rossa while Deaglan Murphy’s 21st strike from a difficult angle and distance signalled their intentions of breaking out of the group stages.
Throughout the first half, everything seemed laboured from a St John’s perspective. But Shea Shannon kept the scoreboard ticking over with three first half conversions and a lovely point off his left side.
The half-time score – 0-10 to 0-6 – was slightly kind to the Johnnies. Stephen Beatty’s mobility was causing St John’s trouble, Deaglan Murphy needed some watching on the edge of the square while sweeper Michael Armstrong was a calming influence over the rest of the Rossa defence.
But half-time proved Rossa’s momentum-breaker. The Johnnies nailed the first two scores of the second half through Domhnall Nugent and Shea Shannon frees, and just when it seemed last year’s semi-finalists were getting to grips with the task, Deaglan Murphy thumped low into the Johnnies net after being fed by Beatty.
But St John’s still had a few cards to play. Centre-back Nugent was pushed into attack, Conor Johnston began to find space to operate in and Michael Dudley came off the bench to add some much-needed sharpness in the St John’s attack.
Michael Bradley also started to make an impression in the final quarter, finding Dudley with a sublime pass for the substitute’s first of two crucial points on 43 minutes. Between the 44th and 60th minutes, St John’s outscored Rossa 0-7 to 0-2 to edge in front – 0-18 to 1-14 - entering stoppage-time.
But, just as he did in the football championship meeting between the two sides at Corrigan Park last week, Stephen Beatty raced clear to knock over a Rossa equaliser.
With oceans of stoppage-time, St John’s were always going to carve out a few more chances. Michael Armstrong needed both arms to wrestle Nugent to a standstill and Shea Shannon popped over the resultant free.
At the other end, James Connolly kept his composure to sling over his seventh free of the day to tie the game.
And just when everyone in Rossa Park appeared happy to accept a draw between the west Belfast rivals, Michael Bradley raced onto the loose ball from Declan Cregan’s puck-out to win it for the Johnnies.
“No game is ever won at half-time and that is the experience that this team has,” said St John’s boss Michael Johnston. “We’ve led many of those Championship matches at half-time and have imploded in the second half. That game was won in the last puck of the ball. That shows the maturity of the team.
“But that’s a good Rossa team. They have serious aspirations to be playing at a higher level and they are there.”
Despite yesterday’s narrow defeat, Rossa will host county champions Dunloy next Sunday with no sense of inferiority complex while St John’s travel to Ballycastle, who drew with Cuchullain’s yesterday.
The Antrim senior hurling championship well and truly had lift-off in the heart of west Belfast yesterday afternoon
O’Donovan Rossa: D Armstrong; C Orchin, N Crossan, S Shannon; G Walsh (0-1), D McEnhill (0-3), A O’Brien; J Connolly (0-7 frees), S Beatty (0-2); D Murphy (1-1), M Armstrong (0-1), S Shannon; T Morgan (0-1), D Rocks, A Orchin Subs: C Shannon for T Morgan (30), M McGreevy for Rocks (35), T Murphy for McEnhill (50), M Devlin for A Orchin (60)
St John’s: D Cregan; S Wilson, S McCrory, J Bohill; C Moragn, D Nugent (0-2, 0-1 free), P Nugent; A McGowan, A McMahon (0-1); C Bohill (0-1), C Johnston (0-2), O Donnelly (0-1); S Shannon (0-9, 0-7 frees), M Bradley (0-2), P McCallin Subs: M Dudley (0-2) for O Donnelly (42), C McKenna for C Bohill (59), S Tierney for A McGowan (63), R McNulty for P Nugent (30)
Referee: D McKeown