Five years ago today Cushendall hurlers recorded the biggest win in the club’s history when they beat Sarsfields of Galway in the All Ireland Club Hurling semi-final at Pairc Tailtieaan, Navan. They Ruairis had fallen at the semi-final hurdle many times over the years and despite coming so close on a number of occasions they just come up short. However the hurt of those defeats were all washed away on that February day in Navan when they beat the Galway champions with a bit to spare. They were two points to the good at half time but brilliant goals from Sean McAfee and Karl McKeegan sealed a fantastic victory. Reports of the game said Karl McKeegan poked the ball over the line into and empty net for the third goal, but in the Lurig Inn that night it was reported by a player wearing the 17 shirt that he soloed through from midfield, beating ten men on the way, to crash the ball home.
This is Brendan McTaggart’s report from the County Antrim Post.
So often described as the ‘nearly men’ and a history of ‘also rans’, Cushendall have been here before and on eight occasions have come up short. Ruairi Og’s, the class of 2015-16 not only lifted the curse that has seemingly hung around the North Antrim men at this stage, they produced one of the best performances by an Antrim club in the All-Ireland series.
Let’s just put this into perspective before we delve into a glorious hours hurling for the Ruairi Og’s. The Galway hurling championship is one of the most competitive championships in the 32 counties, if not thee most. You have to go through hell and come back again to earn the right to be kings of the West and we’re talking about a county that has the most All-Ireland club winners among their ranks. Sarsfields are a fine side and on their journey to Navan, they never conceded one goal. On Saturday they conceded three to the runaway juggernaut that was, is, Cushendall.
Superior in every position, outplayed their opponents for the full hour and the score line probably flattered Sarsfields more than it did the Antrim Champions. All year, the Ruairi Og’s have fought tooth and nail but showed glimpses of brilliance which ultimately got them to this stage. At Páirc Tailteann Cushendall produced 60 minutes of brilliance.
From the first whistle they had leaders everywhere on the pitch. A long ball into the heart of the Cushendall defence in the opening minutes was met superbly by Ryan McCambridge, winning a ball he probably had no right to do he burst out through the defence. Imperious, majestic and confidence boosting, it was the perfect start for him and his side. A minute later, Eoghan Campbell met the much vaunted Joe Cooney with a perfectly timed shoulder and unceremoniously put the Galway star on the turf with his legs in the air. Referee Paud O’Dwyer waved play on and the tone for the afternoon was set. The Antrim men were here for the fight and were ready for anything Sarsfields could throw at them, returning it with interest.
From the loose ball after Campbell dispossessed Joe Cooney, Shane McNaughton sent a delivery to the far side of the pitch. Sean McAfee rose above Cathal Murray and caught the sliotar with a glimpse of goal. The Cushendall forward was hauled to the ground by Murray before he could get his shot away, penalty. Three minutes in and the start that the Ruairi Og’s faithful were dreaming about on Friday night was transpiring in front of our very eyes. Neil McManus stepped up and fired his penalty low beyond Ciarán Dolan to give Cushendall the lead and one that they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the match.
Sarsfields got their first score of the match when Niall Morrissey converted a huge free two minutes later but they were living off the scraps if you could even call it that. The Cushendall defence was dominant while Joe Cooney was being given the fight of his life by Conor Carson. The Cushendall man was Cooney’s shadow for the majority of the first half and the Galway star was coming a distant second in that duel. Carson and Paddy McGill landed two points to increase the Cushendall advantage to four at the mid-way point of this Semi-Final and all this while playing into a substantial wind.
Sarsfields were being run ragged by the lively Cushendall forward line and the Cushendall defence, McCambridge in particular, were doing their best Gandolf impression – ‘You Shall Not Pass’. Another Morrissey free was cancelled out by a huge point from distance by the roaming McGill and everything was going to plan for the Antrim champions.
Two more frees from Morrissey cut the Cushendall advantage to two before McManus scored his first point from a free after 28 minutes. Corner forward Alan Ward scored Sarsfields first score from play in first half injury time and at the end of a pulsating half of hurling, the Antrim champions lead by two points.
As the wind and rain hammered down onto the carpet like surface at the short whistle, the Ruairi Og’s faithful rose to their feet and acclaimed their heroes as they disappeared down the into the bowels of the Páirc Tailteann stand. A thoroughly absorbing half of hurling, the questioned remained though, could Cushendall replicate their efforts in the second half? All through their Championship run, they went into the interval trailing whoever they have played. On Saturday they were in new territory. Two points up, playing with the wind and their supporters were beginning to dream of Croke Park. The Green Glens of Antrim was bellowing through the ground from the travelling Cushendall supporters as we prepared ourselves for 30 minutes of make or break hurling.
The first ten minutes of the second half was always going to be crucial. Keep things tight and take the game deep. Keep asking questions of the Galway men and keep the dream alive. What was to happen in the next five minutes was beyond the Ruairi’s wildest dreams.
McManus pointed a regulation free to settle the Antrim champions into the second half before they scored their second goal with the next attack. Again, Shane McNaughton sent a long delivery into McAfee who looked second favourite and had no right to catch the sliotar over Darren Skehill. McAfee managed to get free and bore down on the Sarsfields goal. Shortening his grip and raising his hurl, McAfee lashed the ball beyond Dolan to give Cushendall a six point lead. Another McManus free soon after made it a seven point lead and the Ruairi dream was becoming a reality.
Sarsfields had moved Joe Cooney to the edge of the square to free him from the shackles of Carson and it almost paid immediate dividends. A long ball from Morrissey was falling into the Cushendall six yard box and Eoin Gillan blocked the sliotar straight out into a crowd of players. Cooney grabbed possession and was swarmed but managed to find Ian Skehill whose effort from an acute angle was brilliantly saved by Gillan. From the resulting ’65 though, Sarsfields caught a break. Morrissey’s effort dropped viscously and Joe Cooney swung his hurl in mid-air deflecting the sliotar beyond Gillan.
Four points ahead with 20 minutes remaining, Cushendall’s reply was something that we’ve seen all year. Resilience personified. Two McManus points from placed ball, one from the brilliant Alec Delargy and Paddy McGill’s third of the afternoon put Cushendall into the driving seat once more. Sarsfields started the aerial assault that was always coming seeing how they scored their goal. Time and again they launched the ball towards Cooney on the edge of the square but Cushendall were simply immense. Blocking and hooking like their life’s depended on it, throwing their bodies on the line and doing everything they possibly could to deny Sarsfields. There were moments that even the most ardent of Cushendall supporter would have had their heart in their mouths, Sarsfields came close to breaching the Ruairi’s rear-guard but Cushendall defended like heroes.
With eight minutes remaining, the Galway champions scored their first point of the second half through Morrissey’s fifth free of the afternoon but it looked like too little too late. Eoin Gillan denied them a second goal when he superbly saved a Niall Quinn 21 yard free but Cushendall finished the match superbly. Two further McManus points, taking his tally to 1-7 for the hour opened a nine point cushion before substitute Karl McKeegan sealed the victory with an injury time goal.
Three goals against a team who just don’t concede goals, 12 point winners over the best that Galway has to offer and the dream lives on in Cushendall. Next stop Croke Park, where dreams become reality.
STAR MAN – Ryan McCambridge
The Cushendall defence was immense for the hour on Saturday and every one of them could have easily taken this accolade. To keep a side with the attacking talent of Sarsfields to just 1-1 from play is a super human effort but in all fairness, I could have been writing this after ten minutes of Saturday’s match. McCambridge was outstanding form the first whistle and I lost count of the number of times he came clear with the ball for his side. You will go far to see as fine an individual performance as McCambridge put in on the biggest club game he has played for Cushendall. Tenacious, tough, outstanding in the air and oozed confidence. Sensational performance.
1. Eoin Gillan
2. Ryan McCambridge
3. Martin Burke
4. Aaron Graffin
5. David Kearney
6. Eoghan Campbell
7. Sean Delargy