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Slaughtneil coast to another Ulster club hurling title

Slaughtneil players celebrate winning the Ulster club SHC final at the Athletic Grounds Picture by Seamus Loughran
Kenny Archer at the Athletic Grounds

THERE are many reasons for Slaughtneil’s success but selflessness is chief amongst them. Sean Ó Casaide, who scored their important first goal after a sluggish start to this final, had to be stretchered off in the second half with breathing difficulties – but his only thoughts were for the team, not himself.

Manager Michael McShane revealed that even amidst his own pain, the player was still focussed on getting the victory: “He was hit accidentally across the neck and was struggling to breathe, there was a bit of concern and he was panicking a bit which wasn’t helping it.

“We sent him to Craigavon Hospital as a precaution but hopefully he will be okay and join us for the homecoming.

“He talked to me when he was on the stretcher and said ‘Make sure the boys finish the job’.”

They duly did that, albeit they only really pulled clear after Ballygalget were reduced to 14 men after 52 minutes, and leading scorer Cormac O’Doherty converted the subsequent penalty.

The Derry champs ended up 12-point winners, which may explain the relatively mild celebrations, or perhaps the club is almost sated with success already, although McShane insisted they are hungry for more in all codes, after their camogs also retained their Ulster title earlier in the day.

“The hurlers and the camogs have got the job done now and everybody will row in behind the footballers and hopefully they can go on and complete the treble – or the double treble.”

After the unusual ‘guard of honour’ their footballers received from Kilcoo’s substitutes at half-time in Newry the previous Sunday, Slaughtneil gave that tradition an in-house twist in keeping with the ethos of their club, as McShane explained:

“The girls were always going to be in a tight game – we gave them a guard of honour when they came out at half-time, they gave us a guard of honour when we were entering the pitch. There’s a real togetherness – the saying is ‘Ni neart go cur le chéile’, ‘Strength is in our unity’ – the strength is the unity of Slaughtneil club…

“The lads all wanted to be down here in time to see the start of the camogie game and we watched it until about halfway through the second half then we had to come in and start getting prepared for our own game.

“The boys were just itching to find out how it went and when word came in that they’d won there was a real, palpable, fantastic feeling, the boys wanted to go out and get the double.”

So that’s what they did, with little fuss, especially after Ó Casaide netted their first goal in the 13th minute. That put them ahead for the first time, a lead they were never to lose.

Cormac McKenna had come into the Slaughtneil defence for the injured Sean 'Tad' Cassidy. Ballygalget made one change from their provincial semi-final too, starting Gareth Johnston, at full-forward unsurprisingly. Somewhat surprisingly, John McManus dropped back from the attack into defence, in place of Joe Smyth, with the number 10 given the task of marking Brendan Rogers, but that largely worked out well, even though he’d been representing Ireland in the Hurling/Shinty international the day before.

Yet, despite the presence of big ‘Magic’, it was Slaughtneil sending in long, high balls and the tactic paid off when skipper Chrissy McKaigue found Rogers, who eluded McManus for once; his lay-off released Ó Casaide, who ran on to flick the sliotar to the net.

“We were glad to get the goal, that gave us a wee bit of breathing space, that seemed to settle everybody,” admitted McShane.

The Down champions were rattling into them, and that was the champions’ first score from play, but from that stage onwards, the Emmet’s were in control, although they aren’t a side to get flustered anyway. Two of the three provincial trophies won by Slaughtneil last year were retained in Armagh yesterday and McShane acknowledged that the confidence garnered from those triumphs contributed to the repeat showings:

“In the changing room at half-time with these guys, there’s never any panic, whether you’re behind or in front, they just know what they have to do and they go out and do it.

“It wasn’t our best performance, I don’t think we played our best hurling in the [Ulster] semi-final against Dunloy either, but we’re still Ulster champions. That’s a nice way to be – there’s still room for improvement.”

Their standards rose in the second half, although that only truly showed on the scoreboard from the 52nd minute onward, when Mark Fisher was sent off for a second yellow card, leading to that penalty converted by O’Doherty.

Fisher had to go for hauling down the excellent Gerard Bradley, who had moved up from midfield but continued demonstrating his aerial prowess, catching a long ball from Karl McKaigue.

Young ’Galget goalkeeper Jamie Crowe, who had already saved superbly from Se McGuigan early in the first half, got his stick to O’Doherty’s low drive, but the powerful shot still hit the net.

Slaughtneil added five more points after that penalty goal, including a third from play by Karl McKaigue, sprinting into space before scoring, having revelled in his marker – Ballygalget captain Danny Toner – dropping deeper for much of the match.

Ballygalget, though, to their credit, kept going. The tireless John McManus, back up in attack, forced a fine save from Oisin O’Doherty, and Caolan Bailie did grab an injury time goal after a Johnston free was blocked on the line.

Slaughtneil had the final say, O’Doherty bringing his tally to 1-10, all from placed balls, and Brian Cassidy completed the scoring for a convincing 12-point success.

Ballygalget boss Paddy Monan was full of praise for the victors, insisting they can make a mark in the All-Ireland series next year:

“The way those boys are going, if they can keep all their players fit, those boys will be a match for anyone. They will play a Munster team, but I tell you, their fitness levels are phenomenal. Their hurling is phenomenal. If they can keep all their top men fit, then they will be a match for anyone.”

The fitness and availability worries now, though, are for the hurlers who become footballers, to take on Tyrone champions Omagh St Enda’s this Saturday evening.

Apart from Ó Casaide, the footballers’ back-up goalkeeper, captain Chrissy McKaigue had a late moment of concern, although he insisted he had only pushed Jordan Doran before he went to ground, and the officials agreed, with only a yellow card shown.

Rogers had to be helped groggily from the pitch at the end after shipping a heavy knock, but the word is that he should be available to don the football full-back jersey.

Last night, though, it was all about the hurlers, and O’Doherty was delighted they had become the first club outside Antrim to retain the Four Seasons Cup:

“It’s a massive achievement, only four teams had ever done it – Dunloy, Cushendall, Loughgiel, Ballycastle and now ourselves.

“We probably felt after last year that we didn’t get the respect we thought we deserved, people said we caught Loughgiel on the hop but I think we proved this year we are a good hurling team and we’re here to stay hopefully.”

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