Antrim Senior Hurling Championship Final 2017
After contrasting victories at the semi-final stage Ruairi Og Cushendall will face Cuchullians Dunloy in the 2017 Antrim Senior Hurling Championship Final. It is hard to believe that two teams that have claimed thirteen (Cushendall) and eleven (Dunloy) titles since 1981 have only ever faced each other in three previous finals. Cushendall claimed their maiden title in 1981 and Dunloy in 1990. In Antrim hurling history they are still relative new comers to the top table. However since they first arrived no other clubs have amassed more titles than Cushendall and Dunloy.
Many people would tell you that the Dunloy team of the 1990’s were the best team to never have won The Tommy Moore Cup however what many forget was that during that decade Cushendall claimed just as many Antrim titles, five apiece. Cushendall were every bit as good as Dunloy were during that time with both teams almost carbon copies of each other. Both had tremendous half back lines, with cult hero wing backs in Cushendall’s Terence "Sambo” McNaughton and Dunloy’s Seamus "Mushy” McMullan. The men at centre back for each team were small in stature but giants in terms of skill and ability. There have been few finer centre half backs since Gary O’ Kane and Leonard McKeegan’s time. To complete those lines you had Cushendall’s James McNaughton and Dunloy’s Sean Mullan, two men that very few forwards got any change from. Although there were superb hurlers littered throughout both squads, not just at half back. Old school, no nonsense full backs? How about Aidan McAteer and Dominic McMullan? Swashbuckling midfielders? Read Mark McCambridge and Colm McGuckian. Marquee forwards and dead ball specialists? There were few better than Gregory O’ Kane and Conor McCambridge. Every team needs a goal poacher, Dunloy relied on Alister Elliott while Cushendall had Alister McGuile when the chips were down.
In a decade dominated by both teams it was amazing that their first final meeting came in the decades final year. The history books will show that it was Cushendall who claimed victory and in doing so stopped hot favourites Dunloy claiming three titles in a row. In the game itself Cushendall got off to a dream start with an early goal but Dunloy never panicked and entering the final ten minutes or so they had built up a five point lead. The Dall however were not going to give up and in an amazing closing period they hit two goals from Jackie Carson and Sambo along with a point from substitute Brian McNaughton to wrestle victory from the jaws of defeat.
In the early part of the noughties Dunloy steamrolled all in front of them in Antrim winning a superb four titles in a row. Included in that sequence was a 3-12 to 1-8 victory over Cushendall in 2002 and in truth it was as routine as the scoreline suggested. At the time Ruairi Og were a team very much in transition. Cuchullians final championship win came in 2009 where they disposed of a much fancied Cushendall team who were looking for their fourth title in five years. However three first half goals delivered sucker punches that Cushendall could not recover from. Final score Dunloy3-14 Cushendall 1-13.
Coming into this weekend’s final both teams are approaching the game from very different positions. Cushendall very much the experienced old hands, having contested nine of the previous ten county finals, while Dunloy are a team full of youthful exuberance. For Cuchullians an injection of youth from successful minors and under 21 teams have given them fresh impetus. Both Conal Cunning and Keelan Molloy are lightening quick and play with the freedom and abandon only associated with teenagers. Captain James McKeague and Conor McKinley provide the spine of the team at full back and centre half back however the key for Dunloy this year has been the return to full fitness of Paul "Shorty” Shiels. When fit and on song there are few better hurlers in Ulster than the Dunloy midfielder who has been magnificent this season. Cushendall have been here so often before and are well aware how to deal with the occasion. Their defence was excellent against Loughgiel in the semi final and they will need another massive performance if they are to keep Dunloy’s livewire forwards at bay. However the likes of Ryan McCambridge, Paddy Burke and Arron Graffin will yield to no man and will be ready for the challenge. Eoghan Campbell is capable of playing a number of roles for his team and where he plays could have a big bearing on the game. Neil McManus and Paddy McGill, as they showed against Loughgiel, lead the line up front and can be relied upon to get scores.
Who will win is anyone’s guess. Both teams will respect each other but will approach the game believing that they can and claim The Volunteer Cup. Both villages are awash with flags, bunting and colour. The atmosphere is building and it is a great time for hurling fans from both clubs. Good luck to both and may the best team win.