Cushendall can grind to another Volunteer Cup success
Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final: Ruairi Og, Cushendall v Loughgiel Shamrocks (tomorrow, Ballycastle, 3pm)
PAIRC MacUilin has not been a happy hunting ground for Cushendall in recent years and they will be looking for a change in fortune as they attempt to avoid a third final loss in a row when they meet Loughgiel tomorrow afternoon.
This will be the fifth time in six years that the Ballycastle venue has hosted the decider ever since Casement Park was knocked out of action. The Cushendall players have driven through the gates dreaming of glory and back out it a few hours later with those same dreams shattered on three of the four previous occasions.
Loughgiel powered past them in 2013 while the same opposition defeated them there in 2016. Last year it was the turn of Dunloy to celebrate on the Ballycastle turf.
The exception to the rule came in 2014 when they defeated St Gall’s, but they did enter that match as 1/12 shots to lift the Volunteer Cup.
Perhaps some of their negative energy surrounding the venue disappeared two weeks ago as they defeated St John’s in a pulsating semi-final replay.
In the drawn encounter in Dunloy, the Johnnies led by five points with as many minutes remaining before Eamon Gillan’s side staged a storming comeback with Alex Delargey grabbing a crucial goal from the bench.
It sparked memories of a similar escapade against the same opposition three years previous when they were six points down late on. However, goals from Neil McManus and Shane McNaughton allowed them to remain on a journey that would eventually end at Croke Park the following March.
The replay in Ballycastle two weeks ago was just as entertaining with Conor Carson grabbing both their goals in a 2-16 to 3-11 win to earn their place in tomorrow’s showpiece event.
Amidst all that drama, Loughgiel had a surprisingly easy task of securing a final spot as they dethroned Dunloy following a fine 0-14 to 0-8 win in horrendous conditions.
Shamrocks manager Johnny Campbell got his tactics spot on as his players’ manic work-rate allowed them to plug the gaps in defence thus denying Dunloy the sort of space they usually thrive in.
They managed to keep the Cuchcullain’s out for the final 16 minutes and with James McNaughton, Joey Scullion and Shay Casey tagging on scores at the other end, they were able to comfortably close out the contest.
McNaughton grabbed over half of their scores as he showed superb accuracy from frees despite the horrible wind. Campbell will hope that they can score more freely in what is expected to be cold but calmer conditions even taking into account how exposed the Ballycastle pitch can be.
The replay in the other semi-final also gave them another week to prepare as Campbell plots another tactical triumph. It didn’t hurt on the injury front either with Barney McAuley now the only player likely to miss out.
You have to go all the way back to 2008 for the last time they lost to Cushendall in the final with the score 4-0 in their favour since, but this is only their second final appearance in five years. Prior to 2003 was the last time that they were so infrequently involved.
In that ’03 defeat to Dunloy, they were managed by a certain Eamon Gillan and that’s another interesting sub-plot to this weekend’s encounter.
Although he has long resided in Cushendall, he should have some inside knowledge on his native club even if they task of plotting their downfall remains an unusual feeling.
He would have parked those conflicting emotions in an effort to find a way to beat the Shamrocks. Undoubtedly the key is to get his attack firing against such a disciplined defence, something that Dunloy were unable to do last time out.
‘Patience’ will probably be the buzzword in the Ruairi Og dressing room. They have the firepower to win, they just need to be clever in their play. Conor Carson brings a physicality to that attack while McManus, Delargey and Donal McNaughton are all capable of scoring heavily.
Eoghan Campbell (broken wrist) will miss out for the side though, a significant blow to their ambitions.
This has been a memorable year for the Antrim Championship. The new format brought something fresh to proceedings while drama has not been in short supply in the knock-out stages.
This match seems made for more of the same. You’d have to go all the way back to 2010 for the last one-point final with the seven instalments since being won by three points or more.
This could break that run though. It’s unlikely to be high scoring but it is likely to be tight – and Cushendall have shown enough to suggest that they can come through another tight encounter.