Epic. 60 minutes of pulsating, mind blowing and scintillating intensity while hurling of the highest standard and still there wasn’t a winner to be found. Cushendall and St Johns, a pairing who never fail to deliver when it comes to the race for the Volunteer Cup and they treated the bumper crowd packed in Páirc Mac Uílin to another dramatic draw.
Both sides will have left Ballycastle feeling like they could have won this one, Shea Shannon pointing from a sideline deep in injury time before the brilliant Alex Delargy equalised. Yet there was still time for more drama. Padraig Nugent pointed from a ’65 in the fourth minute of the allotted time but Cushendall had one last chance. Fergus McCambridge broke the shackles of the St Johns defence for one of the only times in the match and squeezed a shot away at the target.
Or not. Referee Colum Cunning eventually overruling his umpires as the Ruairi’s hung onto their crown for another seven days at least. McCambridge’s controversial point the last action of what was a hugely enjoyable and breath-taking hour of championship hurling.
These pair have played each other so often that the games tend to have the same pattern. The Ruairi’s start well, take an early lead and the Johnnies comeback. They go toe to toe for the closing stage and slog it out with brilliance meeting determination and knock out blows meeting courageous resilience. Cushendall held an eight point lead with five minutes of the first half remaining with goals from Alex Delargy and Paddy McGill but the Corrigan Park men and Pagraig Nugent reeled them in to trail by just three at half time. It was his 12th white flag of the match that drew the sides level with three minutes remaining before the drama reached fever pitch in the closing stages.
No winner, other than the game or hurling but these two must go again before we have our final pairing.
Both sides had scores on the board by the third minute of the game, Neil McManus with his first of seven for the match before Conor Johnston split the uprights for the Johnnies. He turned provider for his brother Ciaran to give the Corrigan Park side the lead in the sixth minute but Cushendall scored the opening goal with the next attack. Collecting the sliotar wide on the right, Fergus McCambridge sent the ball high across the pitch. Alex Delargy slipped the close attentions of the St Johns defence before firing a low shot to the bottom corner of Simon Doherty’s net. A predators from the Ruairi Og forward as Cushendall opened a three point lead with another McManus free.
St Johns responded with a brace of points (one free) from Padraig Nugent but four points in as many minutes from the reigning county champions put them in the driver’s seat. Aiden McNaughton, Ryan McCambridge and a couple from McManus (one free) putting the Ruairi’s in control.
Cushendall were creating space in the full forward line for Alex Delargy to work out of and they were getting the delivery perfect in those early stages with he and Paddy McGill causing the St Johns defence huge problems. The city men halved the four point deficit with Shea Shannon and Peter McCallin finding the required accuracy but Cushendall underlined their dominance with their second goal. Intercepting a poor poc out, McGill collected and drove low. Doherty got something on the sliotar but the power of McGill’s drive took the ball over the line, just, in the 23rd minute. A poor goal for the Johnnies to concede and when Alex Delargy and McManus (free) pointed to open an eight point lead with five minutes of the first half hour to play, Cushendall were well in the ascendancy.
To say St Johns finished the half on top is an understatement. Five points in as many minutes with Padraig Nugent helping himself to four of those (three frees) to take his tally to seven points for the half along with Conor Johnston’s second white flag while the McManus’ fourth free of the match the Ruairi’s only response to leave Cushendall three points ahead at the interval (2-9 to 0-12).
Half time gave the Ruairi’s a chance to reorganise and while Nugent resumed his accuracy from frees to reduce the Cushendall lead to just two, the reigning champions looked more fluent in those opening exchanges. Alex Delargy showing his sharpness by scoring his sides opening point of the second half and taking his tally to 1-2 but neither side was in the ascendancy. Shannon and Domhnall Nugent fired over for St John’s by the 43rd minute before a quite brilliant point from wide on the right with his first touch since coming on, Natty McNaughton opened a two point lead before McManus took his tally to eight for the match with what conspired to be Cushendall’s only score from a free in the second half.
Three between the sides and into the final ten minutes, St John’s found another gear. Padraig Nugent (free) and Michael Bradley brought their side to within touching distance before another Nugent free brought the sides level with five to play. He repeated the feat two minutes later and it looked for all the world that the Corrigan Park side had timed their push perfectly.
They took the lead moments later, Nugent’s 12th of the match before another huge point from Natty McNaughton restored parity and steadied the shaking Cushendall ship. St John’s retook the lead with an outrageous pointed sideline from Shannon, at least 50 yards from goal and it felt like it deserved to be the winning score such was the quality of the strike. Cushendall showed their undying fight and resilience at the death however. Alex Delargy splitting the posts as the match ebbed into injury time. Nugent edged the Johnnies back in front in the fourth minute of additional time but the Ruairi’s fought back once again. Fergus McCambridge collecting the sliotar from a ruck and racing towards goal, his shot was initially waved wide by the umpire but after deliberation, referee Cunning overruled and awarded the point with what was the last action of the game.
An incredible contest where neither truly deserved to come away empty handed. They will have to go again though with the replay scheduled for Pearse Park, Dunloy in seven days’ time.
St Johns: Simon Doherty; Domhnall Nugent, Ryan McNulty, Lorcan Heenan; Stephen Tierney, Ciaran Johnston, Conal Morgan; Oisin Donnelly, Shea Shannon; Aidan McMahon, Peter McCallin, Padraig Nugent; Michael Dudley, Michael Bradley, Conor Johnston.
Subs: Jack Bohill for L Heenan (22); Conall Bohill for O Donnelly (HT)
Cushendall: Conor McAllister; Martin Burke, Paddy Burke, Joe McCurry; Fred McCurry, Eoghan Campbell, Stephen Walsh; Aidan McNaughton, Scott Walsh; Neil McManus, Ryan McCambridge, Sean Delargy; Fergus McCambridge, Paddy McGill, Alex Delargy.
Subs: Donal McNaughton for S Walsh (47); Eunan McKillop for R McCambridge (50); Cormac McClafferty for A McNaughton (58); Arron Graffin for S Delargy (58); Ed McQuillan for P McGill (inj)
Scorers: Neil McManus 0-7 (5 f’s), Alex Delargy 1-3, Paddy McGill 1-00, Aiden McNaughton 0-2, Natty McNaughton 0-2, Ryan McCambridge 0-1, Fergus McCambridge 0-1