Brendan McTaggart reports from Páirc Mac Uílín, Ballycastle
Pulsating, intense, bewildering skill and ultimately an incredible hour of hurling. All played out in front of a raucous support packed into Páirc Mac Uílín. Everything you want from county final day and by the end of the hour, we had a winner.
Dunloy Cuchullains, county champions for the 13th time in their history and second in three years and while there was four points between them and the Ruairi Og’s at the final whistle, where the Volunteer Cup would reside wasn’t decided until the death.
Two goals in as many minutes at the end of the hour from substitute Seaan Elliott ultimately proved to be decisive at the end of a close contest. Cushendall held a one point lead at the interval in a half where the Cuchullains hit double figures in wides. The Ruairi’s were to build a four point lead at one point in the opening 30 minutes with Neil McManus deadly accurate from placed ball, Paddy McGill causing the Dunloy defence plenty of problems and Fergus McCambridge taking advantage of some indecision between the sticks from Ryan Elliott. The Dunloy ‘keeper would go on and more than atone for that indiscretion with three outstanding saves in the second half but the pivotal moment came in first half injury time when Nigel Elliott scored the Cuchullains first goal. It brought them to within touching distance of Cushendall at a time when it felt like the Cuchullains challenge was in danger of wilting.
The second half was full of drama with both sides improving. Cushendall certainly played much better after the break while the Cuchullains improved their accuracy in front of the posts. The sides were tied on three occasions with Cushendall holding a two point lead on two occasions. It was the Cuchullains who finished superbly however with the changes made having a major impact. Not only with Seaan Elliott’s two majors but Gabriel McTaggart’s impact and assist for Elliott’s first major.
Cushendall, to their eternal credit pushed to the end like all great champions do but Ryan Elliott was immense in those closing stages and although Christy McNaughton got a goal in the sixth minute of injury time, it was too little too late.
The Cuchullains started the final well and looked more fluent in the opening exchanges. Nicky McKeague fired over the opening point of the final while McManus split the uprights in the third minute for his first of ten points over the hour. The Dunloy forward line were at their impish best with Keelan Molloy and Nigel Elliott splitting the posts to give the Cuchullains a solid start after six minutes. McManus and Conal Cunning exchanged frees but ‘Coby’s’ 11th minute free was the Cuchullains last score for nine minutes when the Ruairi’s hit a purple patch.
Another McManus free brought Cushendall to within a single white flag before Fergus McNaughton scored the opening goal of the final in the 15th minute. 45 yards from goal, his effort for a point went high and caught in the breeze, Ryan Elliott misjudged the dropping sliotar and the ball bundled over the line. A soft goal which was compounded by wides at the other end of the field for the Cuchullains and two frees from McManus to give Cushendall a four point lead with ten minutes of the first half remaining. A point from Eoin O’Neill got Dunloy firing again before Fergus McCambridge restored Cushendall’s four point lead with a well taken point seconds later.
Cushendall were more clinical in front of goal in the first half and while Dunloy played more of the hurling , their lack of accuracy was threatening to derail their challenge. They found some form with a trio of unanswered scored coming from Coby Cunning (one free) before Cushendall did the same. Eoghan Campbell, Alex Delargy and McManus (free) but the Cuchullains had the final say of the half.
Nigel Elliott collecting the sliotar wide on the left and making a dart for goal. He fired low, bouncing the sliotar in front of the Conor McAllister with the bounce of the sliotar deceiving the Cushendall net minder.
Half time: Cushendall 1-9 Dunloy 1-8
The goal at the end of the half was crucial for the Cuchullains challenge and while Cushendall would have been disappointed but they showed no signs of that at the start of the second half. Fergus McCambridge forcing a top save from Ryan Elliott with barely a minute played after the restart. McManus opened the scoring while the points were tit for tat in the early second half exchanges. A trio of frees from Coby Cunning in answer to two points from McManus and while Cushendall held a one point lead, they wouldn’t register another score for ten minutes. Points apiece from Paul Shiels and Cunning (free) brought Dunloy in front once again.
Cushendall responded with McManus (free) and McGill with an outstanding and instinctive point to edge the Ruairi’s ahead once again with 11 minutes of normal time remaining. It was the Cuchullains who hit back this time with Keelan Molloy producing a moment of magic to land his second point of the match.
Cushendall’s challenge was now being hurt with a trio of wides in front of the target and while Coby edged the Cuchullain’s once again, the final changed in the 58th minute. Substitute Gabriel McTaggart plucking the sliotar from the clouds before playing the perfect ball into Seaan Elliott on the inside forward line. The 19 year old picked up at the second attempt and made no mistake with his effort, finding the back of McAllister’s net to give Dunloy a four point lead for the first time.
Cushendall responded with McManus landing his 10th white flag and eighth free of the hour but their fate was sealed with the next attack. The was sliotar sent down the right where McTaggart was involved again. Nigel Elliott retrieving the ball from a ruck and sending the cutest of passes into the path of his brother Seaan to his left. The chance looked to have gone but Elliott got the better of his marker before scoring his second goal in the space of two minutes.
A seemingly unassailable six point lead going into injury time but Dunloy had to defend for their lives in those closing stages. Keelan Molloy added his third of the afternoon but the Ruairi’s pushed for the goals they needed. The Dunloy defence were immense in those scrambles and Ryan Elliott outstanding but substitute Christy McNaughton did breach the Dunloy goal line in the sixth minute of injury time.
It wasn’t enough for the Ruairi’s as Dunloy saw out the little time that remained to win the Volunteer Cup.
A superb game of hurling and a fine advert for the game within our county. Dunloy were the victors on the day but Cushendall played like the great team they are and more than played their part in one of the best county finals in living memory.
Cuchullains advance to an Ulster semi-final with Ballycran on Sunday October 27.
Dunloy: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Conor McKinley, Aaron Crawford; Eamon Smyth, Kevin McKeague, Ryan McGarry; Paul Shiels, Ronan Molloy; Keelan Molloy, Chrissy Brogan, Nigel Elliott; Eoin O’Neill, Conal Cunning, Nicky McKeague
Subs: Conor Kinsella for A Crawford (34);Seaan Elliott for N McKeague (40); Shane Dooey for C Brogan (53); Gabriel McTaggart for R Molloy (57).
Cushendall: Conor McAllister; Martin Burke, Paddy Burke, Sean Delargy; Fred McCurry, Eoghan Campbell, Stephen Walsh; Niall McCormick, Scott Walsh; Neil McManus, Fergus McCambridge, Ryan McCambridge; Arron Graffin, Paddy McGill, Alex Delargy
Subs: Natty McNaughton for S Walsh (HT); Christy McNaughton for S Delargy (49); Eunan McKillop for A Graffin (57)