Dunloy desire sees defending champions keep title dreams alive with victory over St John's
Bathshack Antrim SHC Group One: St John’s 1-17 Cuchullain’s, Dunloy 4-19
FROM staring over the edge of a cliff, defending champions Dunloy are now sitting pretty in the semi-final of the Antrim championship as a performance full of heart and hunger saw them past St John’s at Corrigan Park yesterday.
Shaky displays in their earlier draws with Ballycastle and Rossa left the Cuchullain’s in no doubt about how high the stakes were as they headed to Belfast. Lose to the Johnnies, and the defence of their title could have ended with a whimper.
Yet, from the off yesterday, it was clear that Dunloy weren’t about to leave anything to chance. When they had to deliver – really had to – they did. That’s what champions do.
Forwards like Conal Cunning, Seaan Elliott and Keelan Molloy have all the speed and skill you could want, but yesterday was about so much more as they harrassed the St John’s back line all afternoon, forcing turnover after turnover to provide a platform for victory.
When the chances duly followed, they were gobbled up with gusto.
The defensive sloppiness that had dogged them against Rossa and Ballycastle was nowhere to be seen either, as Aaron Crawford and Ryan McGarry – who had a great tussle with Domhnall Nugent – refused to give an inch.
In a day that started with them fighting for their lives, Dunloy wound up topping the ‘Group of Death’ to secure a last four showdown against the winners of this weekend’s Rossa-Cushendall quarter-final in a fortnight.
“To top this group is amazing, and we’re delighted to get a rest now,” said boss Gregory O’Kane.
“We’ve had eight championship games, five rounds of football. The Wednesday nights were killers, so it meant the Ballycastle and Rossa games, you were never fresh. Some of the boys were running on empty but now we’ve all the group stages out of the way.”
And the prospect of losing their grip on the Volunteer Cup was enough to sharpen minds in the lead-up to yesterday’s final Group One clash, admits O’Kane.
“Backs to the wall hurling, you can’t beat it.
“We have been asked so many questions across the three games in this group. You couldn’t train what we got out of them. Before a game like that you just a look a guy in the eye and ask have we the hunger for this, do we really want it?
“And sure you saw that there today in spades.”
St John’s, meanwhile, came into the game knowing they had already qualified from the group, and were well aware what was likely to be coming their way.
That said, some of the Johnnies’ decision-making in the opening half hour was poor and Dunloy, with the breeze at their backs, punished any hesitancy or raggedness in possession.
Keelan Molloy demonstrated the kind of hunger O’Kane had demanded just six minutes in when he blocked down Michael Bradley before finishing low past Declan Cregan and when he made it 1-4 to 0-3 10 minutes later, the Cuchullain’s looked in control.
But Domhnall Nugent had other ideas as he collected a long ball up the field from Simon McCrory before sending a dipping shot beyond Ryan Elliott as Dunloy bodies tried in vain to halt his progress.
The champions didn’t panic though, the energy of the excellent Seaan Elliott and Cunning always a threat, especially with men like Paul Shiels providing the ammo from deep, and they led by five – 1-11 to 1-6 – at the break.
St John’s came out with serious intentions at the start of the second half, scores from Bradley, Conor Johnston and a Shea Shannon free closing the gap. But two goals in the opening 10 minutes stopped them in their tracks, Seaan Elliott side-stepping Stephen Tierney before firing home for Dunloy’s second of the day.
Kevin Molloy scored the third in the 38th minute, rising highest to emerge from a cluster of bodies near the sideline before ignoring the shouts of Cunning to his right, opting to ripple the net himself.
St John’s kept coming but, with their qualification already secured amid a hectic schedule for the club’s hurlers and footballers, the fizz went out of their challenge heading towards the last.
Shiels grew increasingly influential as the half wore on, treating the crowd to the full repertoire of his silky skills, and when Cunning bagged Dunloy’s fourth goal of the game 11 minutes from time it was job done.
Johnnies manager Mickey Johnston was philosophical about his side’s defeat in the moments after, as his attention now turns to this weekend’s quarter-final date with St Gall’s – a semi-final clash with Loughgiel the prize for the winners.
“We knew we were through so it was another game. Dunloy were fighting for their lives out there – championship hurling really starts next week,” said the former Down and Armagh boss, who has lost goalkeeper Simon Doherty for the rest of the campaign due to a plantar fascia injury.
“Obviously when you’re beat by that amount you’re not happy. We made a number of silly mistakes in the first half, lads’ touch wasn’t good. When you don’t do the basics right it catches you, and we were heavily punished.”
And while his counterpart O’Kane was happy to have a break to look forward to, Johnston is happy to keep on going.
“A break in the real world, yeah, but a break in the current climate? Not a chance, because you just don’t know.
“Lads are working, a lot of our boys are teachers, they’re going back to school, there’s all sorts of scenarios. We’re happy we’re out next week again.”
St John’s: D Cregan; S Wilson, Ciaran Johnston (0-1), J Bohill; S Tierney, S McCrory, R McAnulty; D Nugent (1-1, 0-1 free), A McMahon; P Nugent, Conor Johnston (0-2), P McCallin; M Bradley (0-3), C McKenna, S Shannon (1-7, 0-4 frees, 0-1 sideline). Subs: A Bradley (0-2) for McCallin (23), J Peoples (0-1) for McMahon (HT), C Morgan for P Nugent (33), D McKeogh for Conor Johnston (44), D McKernan for C McKenna (48)
Yellow cards: S McCrory (26), S Tierney (27), J Peoples (30), R McNulty (52)
Dunloy: R Elliott; O Quinn, A Crawford, C Kinsella; R Molloy, N McKeague (0-2), R McGarry; P Shiels (0-2), Kevin Molloy (1-0); G McTaggart, Keelan Molloy (1-2), A McGrath; E O’Neill (0-2), C Cunning (1-8, 0-5 frees), S Elliott (1-1). Subs: C Elliott for S Elliott (50), L McCann for McKeague (50), C McMahon (0-1) for Keelan Molloy (53), E Smyth (0-1) for Crawford (56), K O’Kane for McGarry (60)
Yellow card: P Shiels (30+1),
Referee: T Conway (Ballinascreen)