AIB Ulster Club SHC final: Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) 0-16 Cuchullain’s, Dunloy (Antrim) 2-12
AS he stood on one side of the Four Seasons Cup, a jubilant Paul Shiels carrying a child in his arms on the other, it was Ryan Elliott’s job to put into words exactly what yesterday’s long-awaited victory over Slaughtneil meant.
Where do you even start? 2017 is probably as good a place as any, truth be told. Fresh from ending an eight year wait for Antrim honours, Gregory O’Kane’s exciting young side were tipped to give the Derry champions hell once Ulster rolled around.
Punters poured into Owenbeg expecting a classic semi-final, what they got was a lesson in levels and, most importantly, where Slaughtneil stood relative to the rest.
In the 2019 provincial final, two years older and wiser, expectation returned. The Cuchullain’s had learnt a hard lesson, they wouldn’t be overwhelmed this time around. But Slaughtneil tore up that script, claiming back a crown surprisingly let slip 12 months before.
By the 2021 Ulster semi, the noise had started to fade out. Slaughtneil were widely tipped to reassert their dominance, and dutifully did just that. How do Dunloy keep coming back from such gut-wrenching disappointments? At what point does it take away too much?
Looking out at a sea of familiar faces clad in green and gold, the remnants of post-match flares catching the winter wind as wisps of smoke blew across the Athletic Grounds, Elliott couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.
And his words summed up what had driven Dunloy back for more.
“You broke our heart many times,” he said, addressing the crestfallen Slaughtneil players, “you’ve been in our head the whole time…”
Finally, the ghost had been laid to rest, their bogeymen buried… until next time.
And Dunloy – coming off a seven week wait since their Antrim final win over Cushendall - lived every second of yesterday’s encounter like a team determined not to be travelling home empty-handed again, emerging from an utterly engrossing encounter in which referee Peter Owens appeared determined to interfere as little as possible.
Even in the absence of the injured Shiels, for so long their go-to guy, the man who makes the men around him tick, O’Kane’s men displayed a conviction and single-mindedness that was missing in previous meetings.
And the signal of their intent came less than two minutes in.
Brendan Rogers - who has done so much damage in previous meetings - popped over the opening score to gentle applause, but it was a thundering Kevin Molloy shoulder that threatened to send Shea Cassidy into an alternative dimension which truly raised the temperature in Armagh.
After a Cormac O’Doherty free edged Slaughtneil 0-3 to 0-1 ahead, Dunloy’s half-back line ate up puck outs and possession as the Antrim champions assumed control.
Luck was on their side too, never moreso than for their first goal which Oisin O’Doherty inadvertently diverted the sliothar his own net. A long ball in from Aaron Crawford looked to be heading over the endline but, with Nigel Elliott closing in, a moment of misfortune saw the Slaughtneil goalkeeper left with head in hands.
The tide had turned, the Emmet’s were rocking. Cormac O’Doherty sent a couple of frees wide that he would normally bury in his sleep, while they looked at sixes and sevens at times at the back.
Conal Cunning punished any uncertainty, punching the air as he watched his shot sail over the black spot seconds after a Slaughtneil attack had broken down.
The Antrim ace doubled the dose a minute later, picking himself up off the ground after being flattened by Paul McNeill to win the foot race and make it 1-5 to 0-4. Another pinged in off the upright during Cunning’s purple patch before Nigel Elliott delivered a hammer blow before the break.
After some initial confusion credited him with the first of Dunloy’s goals, there was no doubting who bagged the second, Elliott lashing home after a hopeful ball in from Eoin McFerran wasn’t dealt with by a hesitant defence.
The Cuchullain’s were roared down the tunnel at half-time, but it was Slaughtneil who roared into the second half in impressive fashion. Trailing by six after Cunning’s early free, Michael McShane’s men bagged eight of the next 10 points to level it up – 2-9 to 0-15 - heading towards the final 10 minutes. Defying the low winter sun beating into their eyes, and with Shane McGuigan excellent, Slaughtneil piled on the pressure.
Now it was Dunloy feeling the pain as the pendulum swung. This was the real test of their mettle – it’s alright setting the pace, but can you stick it when it matters? The answer was a resounding yes.
Substitutes Decky Smith, Nicky McKeague and Paul Shiels played a major part in wrestling back momentum. Smith stopped the rot with a scorcher to edge Dunloy back in front, and it was his switch that then allowed Nigel Elliott to add a little more breathing room.
A clever pass from Shiels created the space for McKeague to land another, 2-12 to 0-15 with two minutes of normal time left to go. The final minutes brought further questions to answer, though, as Slaughtneil- in search of a third straight Ulster crown - cranked up the pressure.
Rogers, who was well shackled by Kevin Molloy and then Ryan McGarry, hovered menacingly in the square as the Emmet’s went in search of the winner after Chrissy McKaigue cut the gap to two.
With only one extra minute added, a goal now would be a killer. Everybody in the ground knew it too as gasps whirled around any time the sliothar was sent in long. But having worked so hard to get there, Dunloy weren’t about to let this one slip - the long whistle at last signalling a start to the mother of all celebrations.
This was way more than just joy, more even than another Ulster title to add to the club’s long list. After the hurt that had gone before, the days Slaughtneil had spent inside these players’ heads, this was something special.
To do it largely without Shiels conducting the orchestra as he has done for the guts of the past two decades, without Keelan Molloy or Seaan Elliott troubling the scoreboard, speaks volumes too of how Dunloy continue to evolve.
The next step is an All-Ireland semi-final against Galway kingpins St Thomas’s in a fortnight’s time on the weekend of December 17/18. Having shaken off the shackles of past disappointments, Dunloy will believe anything is possible from here on in.
Dunloy: R Elliott; P Duffin, R McGarry, O Quinn; E Smyth, K Molloy, A Crawford (0-1); C Kinsella, E McFerran; N Elliott (1-1), K Molloy, R Molloy; S Elliott, C Cunning (0-7, 0-3 frees), A McGrath (0-1). Own goal: O O’Doherty (1-0). Subs: Decky Smith (0-1) for S Elliott (40), N McKeague (0-1) for McGrath (50), P Shiels for Kinsella (53)
Yellow cards: P Duffin (37), N Elliott (40)
Slaughtneil: O O'Doherty; P McNeill, K McKaigue, C McAllister; R Ó’Mianáin, C O’Doherty (0-5, 0-4 frees, 0-1 65), M McGrath; C McKaigue (0-1), Shane McGuigan (0-2); P McCullagh, B Rogers (0-2), G Bradley (0-3); B Cassidy (0-1), J McGuigan (0-1), S Cassidy (0-1). Subs: S McGuigan for McCullagh (40)
Yellow card: S McGuigan (12)
Red card: M McGrath (60+3)
Referee: P Owens (Liatroim)