Hurling & Camogie

Cushendall hurlers and their All-Ireland semi-final jousts

Ruairi Og trio Karl McKeegan, Arron Graffin and Declan McKillop reflect on the good days and bad

Ruairi Og team that faced Sarsfields in Navan in 2016 (seamus loughran)

FROM the yawning main stand of Pairc Tailteann, Navan, the Ruairi Og contingent delivered a stirring half-time rendition of the Green Glens of Antrim.

What started as a few soft whispers of the ancient ballad built to quite a crescendo by the end of it.

This was going to be a good day for the parish.

It was Sunday February 7, 2016 – one of the best, most memorable days in the history of the north Antrim club.

From the first minute, John ‘Smokey’ McKillop’s side had the measure of Galway champions Sarsfields, boasting the Cooney brothers – Joe and Kevin.

With just four minutes on the clock, Neil McManus lashed home a penalty to put Cushendall on their way.

“The match began at one o’clock and McManus scored that penalty at 1.04pm,” says Arron Graffin, who was Ruairi Og captain that season.

“One week before the semi-final we did a dry run – we went down to Navan, we stopped at the place we were going to stop at, we went into the place where we were going to warm up.

“And somebody must have bribed the groundsman as we got onto the pitch to hit a few balls.

“There’s a picture of McManus hitting a penalty from the exact spot at exactly 1.04pm the week before.

“He was practising penalties – and somebody had taken a picture of him. It’s mad how things worked out.”

On eight previous occasions, Cushendall had tried and failed to reach an All-Ireland final.

Most of their hard-luck stories are buried in the grey surroundings of Parnell Park.

But Navan was different.

Sarsfields never got to the pace of the game, mustering a meagre 1-6 (1-1 from play) while the Antrim and Ulster champions hit three majors – one apiece from McManus, Sean McAfee and Karl McKeegan – to set up a St Patrick’s Day meeting with Limerick kingpins Na Piarsaigh at Croke Park.

In truth, no hurling team in the country would have denied the Shannonsiders that spring.

Together, Adrian Breen, David Breen, Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes and Peter Casey were an unstoppable force. The Ruairi Ogs just couldn’t hold them.

This Sunday in Navan – a “happy hunting ground” for Cushendall – Brian Delargy’s men will try to repeat the feat of 2016 and reach only their second All-Ireland final in the club’s history.

O’Loughlin Gaels of Kilkenny present a significant roadblock back to Jones’s Road.

“The thing about All-Ireland semi-finals is that the gloves are off, boys just go at it,” says Graffin, who was involved in four All-Ireland semi-finals with Cushendall during his playing days.

“That’s the beauty of club championship at this stage.”

New boy Karl McKeegan was celebrating his 18th birthday when Cushendall won their seventh county title in 1996 and they went on to nip Portaferry in the provincial decider that winter.

“On that Cushendall team were the likes of my uncle Leonard [McKeegan], Terence McNaughton, absolute heroes of mine and brilliant players - and I was part of an All-Ireland build-up with them at 18.”

Wolfe Tones of Shannon – boasting Clare’s All-Ireland winning brothers Frank and Brian Lohan – ended up edging them by a point in the semis, but Cushendall would find themselves back on the All-Ireland stage three seasons later.

Again, it would be the men from the Banner County – defending All-Ireland champions St Joseph’s Doora Barefield – who would block their path to a first All-Ireland final berth.

St Joseph’s had some warrior hurlers who’d won acclaim with their county in ‘95 and ‘97, including the imperturbable Seanie McMahon at six, Ollie Baker in midfield and gifted attacker Jamesie O’Connor on the wing.

Declan McKillop was a teenager at the time and was tasked with marking Baker – a job the youngster did with aplomb.

“I was only a young fella at the time,” says McKillop who is now heavily involved at juvenile level at Ruairi Og.

“I’d watched St Joseph’s in the All-Ireland final the year before – a club team full of Allstars – but we knew we were fit and we also admired some of our own boys just as much as St Joseph’s.

“I was going out there as a child to mark Ollie Baker, the Allstar. It was some experience. I was of an age where I was oblivious to what he could’ve done had he opened up.

“To me, it was about trying to get Cushendall over the line for the first time. I would have done anything just to be out on the hallowed ground of Croke Park with your club. The pinnacle for any player is to play in Croke Park with your club.”

Cushendall drew with the Clare and Munster champions but were undone after a replay in the 1999/2000 campaign.

A few of the older players had run their last race with Cushendall and it was Dunloy’s time to shine as they won four county titles in a row between 2000 and 2003.

By the mid-Noughties, there was a new generation of players coming through in Cushendall.

McKeegan was still there and enjoying a successful career with Antrim, while Graffin and Neil McManus were beginning to make a name for themselves.

They carved a road back to the national stage in 2006 – but still couldn’t make the breakthrough against Loughrea, regarded as an unfashionable Galway champion.

“We felt it was a game we should have been winning. I don’t know if we took them too lightly,” says McKeegan, a member of Cushendall’s current managerial team.

“Loughrea were a good team, but they just didn’t have the same superstars as other teams.”

The Ruairi Ogs left Mullingar with a bagful of regrets that day as Loughrea’s renowned wrecking ball Johnny Maher did sufficient damage on the scoreboard to deny the Ulstermen.

More tales of woe awaited Cushendall in ‘09.

In the dying embers, Arron Graffin remembers thinking that there was no way on this earth Brian Phelan of Waterford’s De La Salle could convert a sideline puck from roughly 70 yards to level up a pulsating semi-final at Parnell Park.

“I was sitting in the pocket waiting for it to land and Phelan hit this bullet of a thing. I spun around and watched the ball go over our bar,” Graffin bitterly recalls.

“I think he might have been 65-70 yards out. I remember we’d time to kill the game off that day and we didn’t. They got a good start in extra-time, we pulled it back and then they just pulled away again.

“That one was really disappointing because we didn’t get back to that stage for a long time afterwards because Loughgiel had their run.”

If Declan McKillop played the game of his life against Ollie Baker in 2000, Kevin Elliott did the same on Waterford and De La Salle kingpin John Mullane in that epic extra-time thriller in ‘09.

Dunloy, Loughgiel and Portaferry stepped up to the plate with the Shamrocks going all the way in 2012.

By the time, Cushendall made it back in 2016, Declan McKillop had torn his cartilage and missed out on that unforgettable day in Navan.

McKeegan was 37 and hanging on manfully, while Graffin made it back from injury to face Sarsfields.

“That was special because it was the first time our club had got over the line in an All-Ireland semi-final and I was captain too, which made it even more special,” Graffin says.

“I hurt my knee that year and came back after a lot of rehab. I would be confident to say that was one of the best days ever wearing the maroon and white jersey. And we were brilliant in the game too.”

But there was always something about Parnell Park that jarred with the Ruairi Ogs.

The tightness of the ground, a pitch surface that was never good for hurling and a series of big results at the north Dublin venue that they fell on the wrong side of.

Galway champions St Thomas’s flitted on and off the All-Ireland radar and after overcoming Loughgiel in 2012, they nailed their first-ever title.

When they drew Cushendall in the 2018/19 All-Ireland semi-finals, the Tribesmen were heavily favoured.

“We didn’t turn up in the first half against St Thomas’s,” Graffin says of his club’s last appearance on the All-Ireland stage.

“We were cleaned out all over the pitch and I remember Sean Delargy revving us up at half-time. Sean was a player then. Nobody else spoke.

“He said: ‘What the f***, lads! The amount of training we’ve done over the winter – let’s go out and give this one a rattle.’

“And in the second half we did. We brought it back to level the game and then their corner-back [David Sherry] came up and scored a ‘worldie’ of a point to beat us in injury-time.”

Still, there could easily have been a different ending to that semi-final too when ‘Natty’ McNaughton’s effort on goal in the last attack was brilliantly saved by Cathal Burke.

As with most of these All-Ireland Club semi-finals, there is normally no more than a puck of a ball between the sides. Expect the same in Navan on Sunday.

A young Ruairi Og fan can't believe his team's defeat against De La Salle in 2009