Dunloy pull off the dream final performance as Rossa left to rue three first-half goals
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final: O’Donovan Rossa, Belfast 1-14 Cuchullain’s Dunloy 3-23
PLAYERS dream of the perfect final – but the Dunloy players turned it into a reality at Corrigan Park yesterday afternoon. Performance-wise, it’ll be difficult for them to top this for the rest of their careers.
To a man, the Cuchullain’s were outstanding as they claimed three county titles in a row, their fourth in five years.
They will take some toppling.
If this was a dream final for Gregory O’Kane’s men, it was the stuff of nightmares for their opponents O’Donovan Rossa.
Everything that could go right for Dunloy did go right – and it was the polar opposite for the west Belfast men, who were making their first senior final appearance in 17 years.
You can’t buy experience of the big days. Dunloy have bags of it. Rossa had none, up until yesterday.
And it showed in the first half as the defending champions ran away with this final, hitting three goals in the first 27 minutes.
No amount of inspirational words or managerial team-talks can prepare a player for the big occasion.
You just have to live it for yourself. And it was a desperately painful experience.
You could be forensic and criticise Rossa’s tactics - the short puck-outs and failure to crowd out Dunloy's speedy forwards - but their over-riding problem was psychological. Their touch, their decision-making, it was all off on the day they needed it most.
“I can see the progression that they have made both physically and in their hurling ability,” said defeated boss Colly Murphy, “but too many just didn’t perform. Nobody goes out to play badly, and I told them that, just sometimes it doesn’t happen for you.”
Rossa’s day was encapsulated in how they conceded their first goal after just five minutes.
Seaghan Shannon took a heavy first touch, the ball spun up in the air and before he could retrieve it, Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels had already robbed him.
The Dunloy captain off-loaded to Conal Cunning who continued to ship the ball to the left and the unmarked Seann Elliott hammered the ball into the net.
Rossa’s hopes weren’t helped when highly-rated corner-back Aidan Orchin suffered injury and was forced out of yesterday’s final after just six minutes.
And yet, despite the early turbulence, Rossa still outscored the champions 0-4 to 0-2 between the 11th and 20th minutes with Chris McGuinness and Thomas Morgan showing well for the city men, but they were too easily opened up again for Dunloy’s second goal.
A long ball out of defence set Chrissy McMahon free down the right side and a simple pass inside allowed Conal Cunning to raise another green flag to put the champions 2-4 to 0-5 in front.
When the Dunloy forwards’ tails are up they are uncontainable.
The Rossa backs were trying to plug too many holes too. Everywhere they turned they were being burned for pace by Eoin O’Neill, Cunning, Seann Elliott and McMahon.
In last season’s county decider Kevin Molloy grabbed two goals to sink Loughgiel Shamrocks. Yesterday, he was equally devastating at centre-forward, hitting three from play in the first half and adding a further two in the second half.
You could take your pick for man-of-the-match from Kevin Molloy, Conal Cunning and captain and midfielder Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels.
When this final was a contest, ‘Shorty’ was everywhere, pulling strings, winning breaks and keeping it simple.
Now 33, the ‘Benjamin Button’ of Antrim hurling was a sight to behold.
Rossa never came close to reaching that level of composure.
“'Shorty' steps onto the pitch and he brings this edge,” said Dunloy boss Gregory O’Kane.
“He just goes up two or three notches. His sidekick, Kevin Molloy, the two of them are the one era. Kevin was a half-back and was transformed to the half-forward line. What a player.”
But for all the talk of Dunloy’s classy forwards, their defence was absolutely superb yesterday. Every time a Rossa forward was fortunate enough to win possession, when he tried to turn he was met by at least two muscular defenders.
From start to finish, they were touch tight and managed to push the Rossa forwards further away from goal.
It was a masterclass in defending. And they were wise to the Michael Armstrong tactic too.
Wearing number six but pushed into the Rossa forward line, Armstrong caught one ball early on, but after that the Dunloy backs were able to crowd him out.
Only Stephen Beatty and Chris McGuinness reached anywhere near their potential.
While the Rossa forwards were running up cul de sacs, there seemed to be oceans of space at the other end of the field.
In the 27th minute, the Rossa backs were pulled apart again.
The imperturbable Kevin Molloy won a break off Deaglan Murphy in the middle of the field and he sent in a long ball. With ‘keeper Donal Armstrong off his line and unable to clear the danger Cunning gained possession before pushing the ball across for McMahon to finish to put this final virtually beyond the underdogs [3-5 to 0-7].
The brutal truth was they were three desperately soft goals to concede from a Rossa perspective. Trailing 3-7 to 0-6 at the break, it took Rossa 39 minutes to reach double figures.
They needed goals early in the second half to try and unnerve the champions. Thomas Morgan went close but had to settle for a point and they had to wait 51 minutes before Stephen Beatty rippled Dunloy’s net.
But by that stage Dunloy were a speck in the distance, leading by 3-18 to 1-12.
As all good champions do, Dunloy didn’t let their opponents find any rhythm and they knew goals were worth much more than the three points on the scoreboard in a big game.
Each first-half goal sent Rossa reeling.
In the second half Dunloy kept the scoreboard ticking over with ‘Shorty’ nabbing two memorable scores while Cunning was dead-eyed from placed balls.
Dunloy look a better all-round team than previous years. The quality of their midfield and forwards speak for themselves. Defensively, though, they look meaner.
Last year, they didn’t get the chance to enter the provincial or All-Ireland series because of COVID, and although they’ll not utter the word, Dunloy will have Slaughtneil on their minds after suffering a gut-wrenching loss to them in the Ulster final two years ago.
That’s the team that offers them redemption. That's the next goal.
The thing that will hurt Rossa most in the days after this final is they didn’t do themselves justice. But when the dust settles their trajectory over the last three seasons has been hugely impressive.
In the build-up to yesterday’s final, Colly Murphy talked about how easy it was to “disappear” in the city compared to playing for a rural club.
“If somebody doesn’t want to play or doesn’t turn up for training you mightn’t see a player for a couple of months because the city is so big,” he said.
“But if you’re living in Cushendall or Dunloy and you don’t go to training, somebody two doors up knows about it. You can’t go to the local shop without somebody pulling you.
“You can disappear in the city if you want to disappear. It’s more difficult to do that in a small town and that’s why Cushendall, Loughgiel and Dunloy have won so many championships over the last 30 years.”
Arguably Murphy and his backroom team’s greatest feat over the last few seasons is that they’ve made playing for Rossa’s senior hurling team a way of life.
Given the work they've put in, it's unlikely they'll disappear.
Yesterday’s defeat will, however, burn for a long time, but Murphy added: “We’re going to see who the characters are next year and who wants to step up to the next level. It’s up to them but they’ll be given the opportunity to go and do that.”
For now, all praise is due to the three-in-a-row champions. A remarkable team who aren't showing any signs of slowing down.
O’Donovan Rossa: D Armstrong; C Orchin, A Kenneally, A Orchin; Stephen Shannon (0-1), M Armstrong, C McGuinness (0-3); G Walsh (0-1 free), Deaglan Murphy (0-2 frees); Daire Murphy, Seaghan Shannon, A O’Brien; T Murphy, S Beatty (1-4), T Morgan (0-3) Subs: C Shannon for A Orchin (6 inj), D Rocks for Daire Murphy (h/t), E Trainor for Seaghan Shannon (h/t), N Crossan for C Orchin (51), C McGettigan for T Murphy (53)
Yellow cards: G Walsh (15), S Beatty (46)
Cuchullain’s, Dunloy: R Elliott; A Crawford, C McKinley, C Kinsella; R Molloy, K McKeague, R McGarry; P Shiels (0-2), Keelan Molloy (0-2); E O’Neill (0-1), Kevin Molloy (0-5), E McFerran; C McMahon (1-1), C Cunning (1-10, 0-8 frees), S Elliott (1-2) Subs: N McKeague for E McFerran (49), D Smith for C McMahon (52), E Smyth for K McKeague (56), G McTaggart for E O’Neill (59), O Quinn for A Crawford (63)
Referee: M O’Neill (Armoy)