Hurling & Camogie

The memory of John McKillop drives Cushendall to the promised land

Cushendall celebrate their win over Loughgiel in Corrigan Park Picture Mark Marlow.
Cushendall celebrate their win over Loughgiel in Corrigan Park Picture Mark Marlow.

Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final: Ruairi Og, Cushendall 1-20 Loughgiel 1-19

“Finally, to our supporters. Look at the number of you that are here today. Hurling means everything to this community. You never lost faith. You are incredible in every way. But there is one supporter that should have been here today to lift this cup on behalf of our club. We lost ‘Wee John’ this summer and our village and our club will never be the same again. But it was made a much richer place when he was here. And, as Shane McNaughton said: ‘No-one has ever played the cards they were dealt so well as were played by Wee John McKillop’. I think we can all learn from that… This one is for 'Wee John'– Ruairi Og ABU!” - Cushendall’s Neil McManus on the steps of the main stand in Corrigan Park

IN the end, we were all dwarfed by the beauty of the day.

A blinding afternoon sun hung stubbornly above the clutches of the Black Mountain, the Volunteer Cup looked shiny and resplendent at pitch-side, and it seemed every man, woman and child from Cushendall and Loughgiel had descended on Corrigan Park for an almighty battle.

In our hearts, we’d also like to think that the cool, unobtrusive breeze that swept in from the Whiterock Road carried the ubiquitous spirit of ‘Wee’ John McKillop and Hugh Russell.

An impeccable minute’s silence was observed by the massive crowd to honour the recent passing of one of The Irish News’s favourite sons – snatched from all of us far too soon.

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On many a day at the St John's ground, Hugh would be seen carrying his camera around pitch-side, joking with people behind the wire, clicking and pursuing excellence every time he did so.

You see, there is simply no better day in the GAA calendar than Antrim hurling final day.

There’s something mystical about it.

And there’s no purer sight in this world than autumnal warriors from the Glens colliding and leaving their souls on the field - all the while bringing humility and honour to themselves, their families and the game itself.

That’s what this day does: it dwarfs all of us in the most beautiful, uplifting way imaginable.

The Antrim senior hurling final between Cushendall and Loughgiel - a day to remember at Corrigan Park Picture: Mark Marlow.
The Antrim senior hurling final between Cushendall and Loughgiel - a day to remember at Corrigan Park Picture: Mark Marlow.

Cushendall won this epic duel by a point.

But their manager, Brian Delargy, was right when he said: “Having a loser out of this match is probably not fair on anybody.”

There’s no better ambassador, no better hurling man than Loughgiel Shamrocks boss Hugh McCann. There’s just a touch of class about him.

Five years and counting, navigating many dark days at senior level, he’s transformed the north Antrim club. Probably a few times over at this stage.

Only a few weeks ago they suffered a 15-point loss to Cushendall in the group stages of the championship.

Loughgiel climbed their own mountain this year with ceaseless heart.

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Yesterday, they narrowed that margin to one point.

“There was a bit of soul-searching done after that defeat,” said McCann.

“I think the reaction we got out of the lads was nothing short of fantastic. We were written off right throughout the county at that stage: ‘There was no chance of Loughgiel getting to a final, there’s no chance of Loughgiel competing with Cushendall or Dunloy’.

“Cushendall proved they are a good team and I think we’ll be around for a few years yet.”

Some things in yesterday’s final you just can’t explain.

How on earth did James McNaughton finish a runner-up after plundering 1-10 from the Ruairi Og defence?

Firing over back-to-back scores in the opening moments was a sure sign he’d be a thorn in Cushendall’s side for the duration of this final.

Having not won the Volunteer Cup since 2018 and driven on by the memory of John McKillop, the Ruairi Ogs weren’t leaving west Belfast without the silverware.

Paddy Burke was outstanding for them, firing over four points from play. No matter who Aidan McNaughton saddled up to, he was like a sticking plaster all day.

Ryan McCambridge caught so many balls out of the mint blue skies and was a chief reason why Loughgiel had so much trouble with their puck-outs.

Neil McManus, Eoghan Campbell, Fred McCurry and young Joe McLaughlin delivered displays befitting of a county final.

Ryan McCambridge had an epic final for Cushendall Picture Mark Marlow.
Ryan McCambridge had an epic final for Cushendall Picture Mark Marlow.

That said, there are some size of hearts in those blood-red jerseys of Loughgiel. Daniel McCloskey ran himself to a standstill.

Just like their semi-final win over Dunloy, Ryan McKee was perpetual motion in midfield and Declan McCloskey couldn’t have given much more.

The Shamrocks kept chipping away at Cushendall’s resolve and found themselves just a point behind deep into stoppage-time when James McNaughton – who else – slapped Declan McCloskey’s Hail Mary into the net.

McNaughton had a chance to force this final to extra-time with the last puck of the game, but the free was deep in his own half and at an unfavourable angle.

Once his effort drifted wide, Cushendall knew they were going home with the cup.

Emotions ran wild at the final whistle. The Ruairi Og players celebrated this victory like it was their first not the club's 15th.

In those clutch moments during the game, full-forward Christy McNaughton looked at his wristband with John McKillop’s name on it.

“‘Wee’ John was with us,” McNaughton said. “We wore wristbands with our own personal meanings on them.

“Everybody knows by now about 'Wee' John, nobody had to say it, but if we were getting it tight, I just looked at his name on my wrist.”

Born and raised in the village, John McKillop had Downs Syndrome and died in the summer, aged 60.

He was the Ruairi Ogs’ biggest supporter - and the club's heartbeat.

“John is the epitome of our club,” McNaughton added. “I was up at his grave before every championship match – and I’ll continue to visit him.”

Manager Delargy revealed that the squad didn’t mention John's name during this year’s championship - but a plaque was hung in their changing room yesterday with a Ruairi Og jersey inside it dedicated to their friend.

“We didn’t speak about him openly because we didn’t want to be putting pressure on the boys," Delargy said.

“John supported us every day and I didn’t want it to be if we’d lost, the players might’ve felt they didn’t do John justice.

“But they definitely did. The plaque was only there because we’d ordered John a jersey before he passed away. That’s why the plaque went into the changing room today and the players could look at it if they wanted to.”

After a tricky start to yesterday’s decider, Cushendall settled, strangled Loughgiel’s puck-outs and established a 1-12 to 0-9 half-time lead, with Fergus McCambridge netting in the sixth minute after a combination of Neil McManus, Joe McLaughlin and a blinding sun causing havoc in the Loughgiel defence.

Threatening to take absolute control in the second half, Cushendall racked up a series of bad wides – each miss was like a shot in the arm to Loughgiel.

They opened up the Cushendall defence a couple of times - but Conor McAlister was alert to any goal threats.

Through clasped hands, the Ruairi Og faithful watched James McNaughton's long puck sail wide of their posts in the sixth minute of stoppage-time.

They'd reached the Holy Grail. With paper in hand, Neil McManus's victory speech was beautiful.

'Wee' John McKillop will forever live in the hearts and minds of everybody who knew him.

The Ruairi Ogs are champions again. They did the main man proud...

Ruairi Og: Cushendall: C McAlister, P Burke (0-4), L Gillan, M Burke; Scott Walsh, E Campbell, A McNaughton; F McCurry (0-2), R McCambridge (0-3); R McAteer, N McManus (0-5 frees), F McCambridge (1-0); M McCormack (0-2), C McNaughton, J McLaughlin (0-3) Subs: R McCollum for S Walsh (24 inj), S McAfee for C McNaughton (37), E McQuillan (0-1) for R McAteer (41), P McGill for F McCambridge (55), Stephen Walsh for R McCollum (57)

Yellow cards: A McNaughton (48), Stephen Walsh (62), L Gillan (64)

Loughgiel Shamrocks: C O’Connell; T Coyle, R McCloskey, R McCormack; Declan McCloskey (0-1), D McMullan, C Blair; E Og McGarry, R McKee; Daniel McCloskey, J McNaughton (1-10, 0-3 frees), R McMullan (0-2); S McGrath (0-2, 0-1 free), P Boyle (0-3), C McGarry (0-1) Subs: J McCloskey for P Boyle (61), B McGarry for R McKee (64).

Yellow cards: P Boyle (26), S McGrath (34)

Referee: C Cunning (Dunloy)

The late John McKillop of Cushendall
The late John McKillop of Cushendall