St John's grab last-gasp winner in the sun against brave Rossa
Antrim Senior Hurling Championship Group One: O’Donovan Rossa, Belfast 1-16 St John’s, Belfast 0-20
A BLINDING sun, oceans of blue sky, the Black Mountain within touching distance, Rossa Park looking impossibly green and an enthralling game of championship hurling between age-old city rivals.
Given these uncertain times, the clatter of ash echoing around a sun-splashed field in west Belfast has never sounded so good.
For 70-odd minutes, the hurlers of O’Donovan Rossa and St John’s thundered into one another as if reminding each other of their intense rivalry, and in doing so made everyone forget about Covid19.
Rossa didn’t deserve to lose this opening championship tie on home soil, but they did, with the last puck of the game.
With Rossa’s dead-eyed free-taker James Connolly landing what seemed like the equalising score deep into stoppage-time, there was time for one more play – and St John’s made the most of it.
With all eyes on referee Darren McKeown, the final whistle didn’t come until Michael Bradley burst clear from the resultant puck-out to fire over the winner for the Johnnies.
Rossa led from the first minute until stoppage-time but couldn’t hold out to take at least a share of the spoils.
Victorious manager Michael Johnston obviously enjoyed the manner of yesterday’s last-gasp victory but felt it was more important there was a game of hurling at all, especially with lockdowns breaking out in the south over the weekend.
“There was no way we were going to play champagne hurling here, nor Rossa,” he said.
“Rossa v St John’s has a life of its own. It was a city derby. But it was all about the people on the hill, the officials and everybody for the times that we’re living in. Anything after that is a bonus.
A bar manager for most of his working life, Johnston made the most out the lockdown months and while there is nothing like winning a championship match, yesterday’s did feel a little bit different.
“I think people have stopped and taken stock of their lives and what’s important to them,” said Johnston.
“I loved the time off to be honest because it was long overdue. I’m 50-odd years of age and I haven’t had a break from work since I was 16-years-of-age so from that perspective it’s great. I think this time has given us a greater appreciation of our club and our association and our games.
“We’re just focused on giving our people happiness. If we can lift people a bit. We don’t know who’s in an old people’s home who may have played for St John’s donkey’s years ago and reading The Irish News. That’s what it’s about. There’s more to it than just playing games, especially this year and the environment we’re living in.”
The Johnnies trailed by six points just before the break but battled back to make it a one-point game after 40 minutes before Deaglan Murphy rippled their net to put Rossa 1-11 to 0-10 ahead seconds later.
But the more experienced St John’s side kept chipping away at Rossa’s lead and had Conor Johnston, Michael Bradley, second-half substitute Michael Dudley (0-2) and Shea Shannon to thank for pulling this round robin tie out of the fire.
Afterwards, Rossa boss Colly Murphy knew it was a game his side should have taken something from, but nevertheless was hugely satisfied with the performance.
“It’s our first competitive match of the season,” said Murphy.
“We played well and we maybe didn’t get the rub of the green. But it was a toss of a coin as to who was going to win it.
“I was over the moon with the performance. I couldn’t fault anybody. They were fantastic. They came out from four months of lockdown to that being their first competitive match against our rivals. When the whistle blows, you don’t know what you were getting.
“So I can’t complain. We were just a bit unfortunate at the end; on another day we would have won. That’s what’s sport is all about.”