Cushendall fail to recover from early Na Piarsaigh biltz
IT WASN'T supposed to end this way. Conceding a goal within 30 seconds, down by 12 at half-time, Thursday’s All-Ireland final was over long before the final whistle blew.
Standing against the white stone walls in the bowels of Croke Park, Cushendall’s Shane McNaughton appeared understandably dazed after what had just happened. The celebrations from the Na Piarsaigh dressing room had been audible earlier, but now there was nothing but the gentle hum of the team bus preparing to wind its way back to the Glens without the Tommy Moore Cup.
“It’s hard to take,” said McNaughton, who battled manfully, scoring four points as the Munster men piled on the pain.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve been in an All-Ireland final, I don’t really know what to say... It’s a funny changing room, I know that much. I’ve never been in a changing room like that before.”
Adrian Breen was named as a late replacement for Kevin Ryan – and the wing-forward wasted absolutely no time in wreaking havoc among the Ruairi Og backline. A beautiful pass from David Dempsey was dispatched to Eoin Gillan’s net by Breen inside the first 30 seconds and, although Cushendall put the next two scores on the board, that was the beginning of the end for the Ulster champions.
“That was the problem - with that early goal, we were on the back foot straight away,” said McNaughton.
“Being at Croke Park on the back foot, there’s just so much space, it’s hard to fight your way back from that. That first goal just kind of sunk us nearly and then the second was the same again, it just knocked the heart out of us a bit.”
Having battled back in the face of adversity all season, McNaughton insists there was no panic in the Cushendall dressing room at half-time, despite the huge deficit. Ruairi Og had trailed St John’s and Ballycastle in the Antrim Championship, and were also under the cosh against Slaughtneil in the Ulster final before coming out the other side.
This team has character in abundance, but forcing their way back into yesterday’s game was far too great an ask: “We’ve been in that situation so many times before, we just got our breath together and everyone was - not confident - but not worried,” said McNaughton.
“We know we’ve been there before. We knew we’d have to go somewhere we hadn’t been before if we were to win that game, and we just couldn’t get to that place. It’s different when you go over the border. There’s Allstars in that team and you saw with [Kevin] Downes and [Shane] Dowling, when you give them space, every shot just went over the bar.
“The Slaughtneil game was obviously very physical and it was the best game we were part of all year because of that, but out there you have that space. Those boys are used to playing in Croke Park every other week. They were just at the races today and we weren’t.”
Cushendall boss John ‘Smokey’ McKillop also admitted Cushendall’s slow start had cost them dear against a side laden with attacking talent: “I don’t know if it was nerves or what it was at the start, but it took us 20 minutes to get going and you can’t afford that. They are a good side, you can’t take it away from them,” he said.
“All their big players did shine. I’m not saying our players didn’t, but you know, their big players did stand up. Like, we matched them there in the second half, I think we outscored them by a point. Whether if we’d got the start they got, things might have been better. But what can you do.
“Getting beat in an All-Ireland final, of course we are going to be devastated. But we are a young team, we will be back. I might not be back, but they will be back.”