Slaughtneil still await breakthrough as Ballygunner book All-Ireland final spot
AIB All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) 1-17 Ballygunner (Waterford) 2-19
THE wounds from this one will take a while to heal in Slaughtneil. Another All-Ireland semi-final, another battle royale, another army of watching supporters won over – but another defeat, and another day full of what might have beens.
Just as it was against eventual champions Ballyhale on a heart-stopping afternoon in Newry two years ago, five points was the difference when all was said and done, Ballygunner breaking through their own glass ceiling to book a first All-Ireland final appearance.
With Ballyhale up next, aiming to lift the Tom Moore Cup for a third year in-a-row, the Waterford champions have three weeks to come back down to earth. Slaughtneil, on the other hand, have weeks and probably months of soul-searching ahead.
Following the dual disappointments against Cuala and Na Piarsaigh as the quest to kick on from finally conquering Ulster kicked in, pushing Ballyhale all the way proved to everybody – and, most importantly, to themselves – that they truly belonged at this level. That they could mix it with anybody.
It was a hugely significant step, but not as important as that elusive next one – actually going and beating one of the big boys.
Yesterday, slow starts to both halves killed Slaughtneil’s dream, only a sense of crushing disappointment accompanying the long journey back up the road from Parnell Park.
When the dust settles and they re-gather later in the year, the Emmet’s will realise that, for the fineness of the margins that saw them slip from the last four stage again, there was good to come from this outing too.
The manner in which they battled back from trailing 1-2 to 0-0 inside four minutes, swinging the pendulum in their favour for the remainder of the first half, and the absolute refusal to throw in the towel - even in those moments when it looked as though Ballygunner were home and hosed - showed what this side is made of.
Then there was the bulldozing brilliance of Brendan Rogers, the doggedness of their defence - Paul McNeill merits special mention for keeping such close tabs on the deadly Dessie Hutchinson - and the determination and dead-eyed accuracy of captain Cormac O’Doherty.
Yet, for all that, the harshest of lessons have to be heeded too. Against a team who score as freely as Ballygunner, you simply cannot afford to switch off. Coming out of the blocks slowly is unforgivable, and Slaughtneil paid the ultimate price.
Midfielder Conor Sheahan slammed over the opening point just 11 seconds in. At the start of the second half, again 11 seconds in, the same man landed almost exactly the same score.
And after sinking a dagger to the heart with a goal four minutes in, Billy O’Keefe repeated the dose just a minute into the second half too. This is where the real damage was done, and those moments will haunt Slaughtneil when the post-mortem eventually comes around.
It could have been so different, but it wasn’t. That’s a tough pill to swallow.
First of all there was the Brian Cassidy goal chance seconds after Sheahan split the posts at the beginning of the game, the Slaughtneil forward firing tamely at Stephen O’Keefe from distance when he could have galloped closer to the Ballygunner ’keeper after being found by Jerome McGuigan.
That the Deise men went straight up the field and bagged a goal of their own only added insult to injury.
Unperturbed, Slaughtneil slowly but surely built themselves back up. Sweeper Gerald Bradley was getting in the way of Ballygunner’s attempts to find their forwards with cross-field balls. At the other end Philip Mahony, operating in the same role for the Munster champions, wasn’t getting close enough to Rogers, who threatened to run riot when left one-on-one with Barry Coughlan.
With Se and Jerome McGuigan growing in influence as the half wore on, the gap was down to two at the break. Michael McShane might just have been the happier manager - until lightning struck again.
Sheahan from the throw-in, and then Billy O’Keefe’s low finish to the net after Kevin Mahony caught Gerald Bradley in possession, stretched out Ballygunner’s lead to six.
Three points in-a-row, all a consequence of panic spread from Stephen O’Keefe puck-outs, made it 2-13 to 0-12 with 20 left to play. But back came the Emmet’s. Two brilliant Rogers scores either side of a Brian Cassidy point took it down to five as the last chance saloon loomed.
Needing a goal, Slaughtneil were forced to abandon their sweeper system, with Bradley and Shane McGuigan pushing further up the field. Ballygunner used mean fair and foul – the latter in many cases – to curb that ambition as the clock ticked down.
Without Bradley minding the house, Hutchinson finally found some room to tag on a couple of scores. And although Shane McGuigan found the net two minutes into added time, Slaughtneil needed that breakthrough to have come much earlier, another bid to make the breakthrough falling by the wayside.
Slaughtneil: O O'Doherty; K McKaigue, S Cassidy, P McNeill; G Bradley; M McGrath, C McAllister, Shane McGuigan (1-0); C O'Doherty (0-7, 0-6 frees), C McKaigue; Se McGuigan (0-1), J McGuigan (0-2); M McGuigan, B Rodgers (0-4), B Cassidy (0-3). Subs: P Kearney for Sean Cassidy (50), J Cassidy for M McGuigan (53)
Yellow cards: G Bradley (27), P McNeill (45)
Ballygunner: S O'Keeffe; B Coughlan, T Foley; Philip Mahony; I Kenny, S O'Sullivan, R Power; Conor Sheahan (0-2), P Leavey; P Mahony (0-2, 0-2 frees), M Mahony (0-1), P Hogan (0-3); D Hutchinson (0-4), K Mahony (0-4), B O'Keeffe (2-3, 0-1 frees).
Yellow cards: M Mahony (5), D Hutchinson (30), S O’Sullivan (54), Pauric Mahony (56), C Sheahan (60+3)
Referee: S Stack (Dublin)