Hurling and camogie

New journey begins for Slaughtneil after Ulster triumph over Ballycran

The Slaughtneil players celebrate after yesterday's Ulster club SHC final victory over Ballycran at Belfast's Corrigan Park. Picture by Hugh Russell
Neil Loughran at Corrigan Park

AIB Ulster Club SHC final: St Joseph’s, Ballycran (Down) 0-10 Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) 1-14

THE end of one road, the start of another - this is how Slaughtneil will look upon this latest Ulster triumph on a day when demons were laid to rest, with one eye always fixed on a bigger prize that has long played host to their boundless ambition.

Having craved provincial glory for so long prior to their 2016 breakthrough, these moments are to be treasured. Michael McShane made sure to remind his players of that when they came together after beating Ballycran in yesterday’s decider.

But captain Cormac O’Doherty’s voice took on a different tone just before he clasped the Four Seasons Cup. With all the thank yous and the formalities out of the road, he addressed the team-mates gazing up into the Corrigan Park stand, telling them - in no uncertain terms - that this was “only the start”.

Another All-Ireland semi-final lies ahead in five weeks’ time. Three times they have tried, three times they have failed. But two years after pushing eventual champions Ballyhale Shamrocks to the very edge, anything short of the standards set that day will be seen as a backward step.

“Go on now,” said O’Doherty, “and do something special.”

Those words were met with an almighty roar from below, but the Emmet’s will have left Belfast yesterday knowing that significant improvement is required if they are to have any hope against either Munster heavyweight, Ballygunner or Kilmallock, on January 23.

Although they were well in control by half-time, and out of sight when Brendan Rogers rattled Stephen Keith’s net in the 51st minute, Slaughtneil struggled to hit the heights of seven days previous when Dunloy were cast aside.

Perhaps there was a hangover from those exertions, and the energy driven towards that game in the weeks before, but credit must also go to Ballycran as they set a relentless pace in the first 20 minutes.

Indeed, had it not been for a lack of sharpness in front of the posts - surely due in some part to the seven week gap since their Down final win over Portaferry - the Down champions could and should have stretched a one point lead out further.

A beautifully struck sideline from Stuart Martin set the sliothar in motion before a Conor Woods free had them 0-3 to 0-1 ahead. With the experienced Woods hoovering up any loose ball and setting the Crans on the front foot, they were dominating the early exchanges, even if it didn’t tell on the scoreboard.

Another long-range free from Woods made it 0-4 to 0-3 at the water break, but between then and half-time the Derry champions started to turn the screw. When Ballycran stunned Slaughtneil on the same field three years ago, four goals opened the gates to glory.

Yesterday, they barely looked like scoring one, such was the dominance of Karl McKaigue, Meehaul McGrath and Sean Cassidy in the full-back line. That Ballycran finished up with just two points from play – the second coming with the last effort of the game – tells you all you need to know about Slaughtneil’s defensive toughness.

Gerald Bradley’s ability to read the game and snuff out trouble is another invaluable asset, though Ballycran made it too easy for him as they ceded control, pucking the sliothar away or running into trouble too often, allowing Slaughtneil to break at pace as they found their rhythm.

O’Doherty registered a couple of wides before finally hitting his stride from placed balls, a pair of frees putting Slaughtneil ahead for the first after 23 minutes. They didn’t look back and, although Ballycran battled to the end, it was clear the balance of power was going to take some shifting.

O’Doherty’s accuracy stretched out their lead, and when Rogers cut inside to score his first point of the day, Slaughtneil led by five – 0-12 to 0-7 – with 17 minutes left.

Having started alongside Chrissy McKaigue around the middle, the decision to move Rogers into his more familiar forward role paid dividends when Slaughtneil started to find more room to run into as the Ballycran challenge waned.

The towering Jerome McGuigan could possibly have gone for goal after the second water break, opting to keep the scoreboard ticking over instead. Rogers was in no such mood for mercy minutes later as he profited from a burst upfield by the brilliant Shane McGuigan, Rogers cutting inside Gerard Hughes and bouncing off Michael Ennis before lashing low past Keith.

Job done. That Ballycran bagged the last three scores of the game was a testament to their endeavour and never-say-die approach, but this was Slaughtneil’s day again.

Redemption for 2018 secured, another Ulster title in the bag, but it’s a breakthrough of another kind, the next step on the ladder to greatness, that is driving the Emmet’s now. A new journey has only just begun.

Ballycran: S Keith; S Ennis, M Ennis, B Watson; G Hughes, C Woods (0-2, frees), B Nicholson; M Hughes (0-1), P Savage (0-5, frees); L Savage, S Martin (0-1, sideline), N Breen; J Clarke, B Arthurs (0-1), C Egan. Subs: C McAlister for Breen (43), S Nicholson for Egan (47)

Yellow cards: S Ennis (10), G Hughes (50, 60+1)

Red card: G Hughes (60+1)

Slaughtneil: O O'Doherty; K McKaigue, Sean Cassidy, P McNeill; G Bradley; C McAllister, S McGuigan (0-1), M McGrath; B Rodgers (1-1), C McKaigue (0-1); M McGuigan, C O'Doherty (0-7, 0-6 frees), B Cassidy; Jerome McGuigan (0-2), Sé McGuigan (0-1). Subs: J Cassidy (0-1) for J McGuigan (53), Shea Cassidy for Rogers (56), G O’Kane for M McGuigan (60+1)

Yellow cards: J McGuigan (52)

Referee: C McDonald (Antrim)

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Hurling and camogie