AIB All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: O’Loughlin Gaels (Kilkenny) 1-17 Ruairi Og, Cushendall (Antrim) 1-16
From Brendan Crossan in Navan
SURROUNDED by family and friends in the middle of the Pairc Tailteann pitch after a nail-biting climax to an unforgettable All-Ireland semi-final, Neil McManus was trying to come to terms with Cushendall’s agonising defeat.
The heartbeat of Ruairi Ogs for a couple of decades and counting, McManus had the chance to force this thrilling encounter into extra-time.
It wasn’t the easiest of chances – but in that clutch moment he refused to allow himself any margin for error.
Brian Delargy’s gallant side had other chances to level the game in the last few minutes – but that one golden strike from Ruairi Og ash never came.
With 15 seconds remaining in the fifth and final minute of stoppage-time, McManus caught Ryan McCambridge’s pass along the stand side.
With his back to the O’Loughlin Gaels posts, he swivelled onto his left side and pulled the trigger from around 50 metres out.
But the ball soared slightly to the left of the target and Cushendall’s incredible journey was over.
Trying manfully to hold back the tears, McManus sighed: “I think I hit those eight-out-of-10 times, to be honest - I’d expect to convert that every day.
“It was a great piece of play, a lovely ball up the line from Ryan (McCambridge) and I was always turning him inside and shooting. I should’ve nailed it.
“I didn’t do what I’m telling the young boys to do every night at training.”
With the wind at their backs in the second half, O’Loughlin Gaels edged in front for the first time on 51 minutes – but the north Antrim men created enough chances in the closing stages to at least draw this semi-final.
Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke, Fergus McCambridge and Ed McQuillan – each of whom played the maroon shirt of their backs yesterday – had good efforts that weren’t converted.
“I think those were harder chances,” McManus insisted. “Paddy Burke had run 80 yards before he got a shot away and Fergus was under pressure for his chance.
“I just think O’Loughlin Gaels had their shooting boots on. Their wing-back [David Fogarty] hit their last couple of scores and he just pinged them.
“I’m sure he misses as many as he takes but he hit two out of two. When it’s your day, it’s your day.”
Fogarty, O’Loughlin Gaels’ match winner, did indeed hit two scorchers when Brian Hogan’s men needed them most.
His 49th minute point drew the game [1-14 to 1-14] which came after advancing Ruairi Og ‘keeper Conor McAlister coughed up possession, and Fogarty’s second from under the main stand in the 63rd minute proved to be the winner.
“In those moments you kind of block out everything around you,” said Fogarty, who has earned his first-ever call-up to Kilkenny’s senior squad in 2024.
The wing-back added: “I suppose you’re not focussing on the impact of what that point is going to be because you’re in the moment, it’s adrenaline.
“It’s the same when you’re playing in a training match, and no-one is there. It’s the same as being back in O’Loughlin’s - and, thank God, they went over the bar.”
A second All-Ireland final appearance must feel as far away as ever for Cushendall - but they certainly died with their boots on in Navan.
Each Ruairi Og player was enhanced by the day itself.
And if it was remotely possible, so too was their perpetual leader: Neil McManus.