Brendan McTaggart reports from Pearse Park, Dunloy
Another championship match between Cushendall and St Johns, another hour of pure drama. The Johnnies came close but once again, they found the hurdle of the Ruairi’s insurmountable. Leading by four at the half way mark, Cushendall playing with a man less after Joe McCurry was sent off and their defence answering everything Cushendall could throw at them, St Johns could have been forgiven for thinking today was their day.
They’ve been there before however and more importantly, so have the Ruairi’s.
There isn’t a better team in the county who pull out the stops quite like Cushendall when their backs are against the wall. Second half goals, both in the space of two minutes of each other from Alex Delargy and Fergus McCambridge changed the complexion of the replay. From controlling the tie and in the driver’s seat, St Johns were rocked. They steadied their ship and the final quarter was tension, passion, thrills and spills. Everything we love about the championship but Cushendall were in their territory. This team are built for matches and moments like that and they excelled in the closing stages.
It’s incredibly tough on St Johns who will be wondering what exactly they have to do to make a county final. The 25 year wait for that spot continues but they threw everything they had at the Ruairi’s. Padraig Nugent once again, brilliant from placed ball with 1-9 over the hour while Conal Morgan and Conal Bohill were immense in defence. Losing Peter McCallin midway through the first half didn’t help their cause but a tally of 1-3 from open play won’t win many semi-finals however as the Cushendall defence were outstanding throughout.
At half time, there was no sign of the Ruairi’s resurgence which transpired in the second half. Their defence were overworked and while they had a brief purple patch midway through the first half, St Johns were by enlarge keeping the Cushendall attack at bay. But two minutes swung the game and Cushendall became alive. Paddy McGill with two brilliant points and McManus accuracy from frees come as standard when the Ruairi’s need it most.
There’s no doubting that Cushendall’s win was built around their outstanding defence. Paddy Burke the rock in which their defence was built around while Sean Delargy and Fred McCurry weren’t far behind them. Even with the loss of Joe McCurry to a red card in first half injury time, Cushendall made light of their numerical disadvantage and much of that was down to the performance of Stephen Walsh. An excellent 60 minutes where he plucked countless ball from the sky and sliotar from rucks to help Cushendall turn the screw in the second half.
As the massive crowd made their way into Pearse Park, the Johnnies made a dream start to the replay. Stood over a free 25 yards from goal, Padraig Nugent went for the unexpected. His riffled effort flying high to the back of Conor McAllister’s net for the first score of the game in the fourth minute.
The opening exchanges had little or no fluency with neither side finding their form. Play was broken and unsettled with delays for the majority of the half while the opening quarter was dominated by free takers. McManus scoring Cushendall’s opening point from a ’65 before Padraig Nugent answered from a free in the eighth minute. The Ruairi’s were the first to find some fluency however as they hit 1-3 unanswered in four minutes to take a three point lead. McManus with two points (one free) and Alex Delargy firing over with Niall McCormick finding the net between times. Alex Delargy with the sublime assist and McCormick applying the finish.
The rest of the first half belonged to the Johnnies however. Padraig Nugent (’65) and Conor Johnston raised the white flag, Johnston’s point their first from play in the 17th minute before Peter McCallin scored their second goal. Domhnall Nugent going through a mountain of work to beat the ‘Dall defence and while McAllister saved his initial shot, McCallin was on hand to sweep the sliotar to the back of the net. A pair of Padraign Nugent frees gave the Corrigan Park side a four point leas with eight minutes of the first half remaining.
A McManus free two minutes later briefly halted the Johnnies charge but a huge point from Ryan McNulty stretched the advantage to four once again as Cushendall were dealt another major blow in first half injury time. Joe McCurry saw red for an off the ball incident with Michael Bradley that saw handbags from both sides, resulting in a St Johns substitute seeing red as well before time was called on a dramatic end to the first half.
Half time: St Johns 2-6 Cushendall 1-5
The half-time interval came at the perfect moment for the Ruairi’s. A four point deficit and man less was going to test their powers of recovery but after just nine minutes of the second half they were back in front.
They started the half on fire and could have had their second goal when substitute Ryan McCambridge found Alex Delargy in space but Aidan McMahon produced an outstanding block to deny the Ruairi Og man a certain goal. A huge free from ‘keeper Conor McAllister opened the scoring for the second half in the 37th minute as Cushendall turned the screw with two goals in two minutes.
The first came from the unlikeliest of sources when Paddy Burke made a break up the Pearse Park pitch. His effort was saved by Simon Doherty but Alex Delargy was in the right place at the right time to send the sliotar to the back of the net. Michael Dudley split the posts with an instant reply for the Johnnies but Cushendall wrestled the momentum and their grasp on the semi-final with their third goal. McAllister’s long poc out eventually collected by Alex Delargy and once again Doherty saved the initial shot and again a Cushendall man found the rebound. This time it was Fergus McCambridge who raised the green flag and Cushendall had turned a four point half time deficit into a two point lead inside nine minutes.
St Johns were rocked but Padraig Nugent seemed to stabilise their championship hopes once again. Three frees with just a solitary McManus ’65 had the sides level with ten minutes of the match remaining and thoughts began to turn to the possibility of extra time.
The Cushendall defence and Stephen Walsh were imperious in those closing stages however. St Johns were reliant on Nugent’s frees and while he managed two more in the time that remained, it wasn’t enough. Points from McManus, McCormick and two from McGill gave Cushendall a three point lead before St Johns were reduced to 14 men on the field of play after Ciaran Johnston saw red for dangerous use of his hurl.
McManus sealed the victory with a ’65 in the fifth minute of injury time as the Ruairi’s broke St Johns hearts at the semi-final stage for the second year running. A scintillating end to a pulsating contest with the Ruairi’s showing their incredible powers of recovery to seal their place in the county final against Dunloy on Sunday.
Cushendall: Conor McAllister; Martin Burke, Paddy Burke, Joe McCurry; Fred McCurry, Eoghan Campbell, Sean Delargy; Stephen Walsh, Scott Walsh; Neil McManus, Cormac McClafferty, Niall McCormick; Fergus McCambridge, Paddy McGill, Alex Delargy.
Subs: Ryan McCambridge for C McClafferty (HT); Natty McNaughton for S Walsh (37); Christy McNaughton for S Delargy (53).
Scorers: Neil McManus 0-8 (5 f’s, 2 ‘65’s); Niall McCormick 1-1; Alex Delargy 1-1; Paddy McGill 0-2
St Johns: Simon Doherty; Aiden McMahon, Ryan McNulty, Conal Bohill; Stephen Tierney, Ciaran Johnston, Conal Morgan; Shea Shannon, Peter McCallin; Michael Dudley, Sean Wilson, Padraig Nugent; Domhnall Nugent, Michael Bradley, Conor Johnston.
Subs: Oisin Donnelly for P McCallin (44); Conal Bohill for M Dudley (55)
Scorers: Padraig Nugent 1-9 (1-8 f’s, 1 ’65); Peter McCallin 1-00; Conor Johnston 0-1; Ryan McNulty 0-1; Michael Dudley 0-1