Cushendall top guns after victory in feisty final duel with Slaughtneil
Cushendall 1-24 Slaughtneil 3-17
The theory that hurling in Ulster is on its knees was rubbished in no uncertain manner in this provincial club final spectacular at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh yesterday where Cushendall just managed to breast the tape ahead of a Slaughtneil side that played themselves to a standstill.
In a game that encompassed all that is best in the sport - slick stickwork, exquisite scores, elegant individual and unbridled collective passion - the teams produced a glowing advertisement for a product that is often the focus for sniper fire.
Right from the outset it was clear that little would separate the as this was to prove the ultimate nip and tuck contest, a feisty duel between two sides cushioned by flair yet markedly underpinned by a ravenous spirit.
The pity was that there had to be a loser and as Slaughtneil players sank to their knees when Cavan referee James Clarke sounded the final whistle after a spell-binding segment of extra-time, even the most fervent Cushendall fans clearly felt their pain.
And indeed Cushendall boss John McKillop, while naturally delighted to see his side's passport into the All-Ireland Club series stamped, was lavish in his praise of the heart-broken Derry champions.
"Our players were very keen to get back into this final to make amends for last year but we know for sure that we beat a very good side here in Slaughtneil. They gave it everything and showed they are team of true quality," he said.
This will be of little consolation to the Derry champions although their manager Michael McShane heaped kudos on his players, several of whom were playing in their 13th game spanning both codes in 11 weeks.
"Slaughtneil are right up there are the top table in Ulster hurling and I can guarantee you that should we manage to win Derry again next year - and that's a big, big challenge in itself - and manage to get to the provincial series, then we will be feared," he said.
It was a towering performance from centre-half-forward Neil McManus that set the tone for Cushendall's triumph. His 12 points bore the hallmarks not just of experience but sheer class yet by half-time his side had already been warned that they were in for a white-knuckle ride.
In a five-minute spell right before the interval Slaughtneil pillaged an unanswered 1-4 that not only occasioned more than a tremor of uncertainty within the ranks of the Antrim champions but saw them trail by 1-7 to 0-8, a snap goal from Brendan Rodgers and two long-range points from Chrissy McKaigue galvanising Slaughtneil just when their concentration appeared suspect.
But when McManus converted two points after the break, he appeared to have steadied the Cushendall ship again - until, that is, Gareth O'Neill pounced for an out of the blue goal to send Slaughtneil clear at 2-8 to 0-11.
Even when Cushendall responded once again with a well-taken Christy McNaughton goal, Cormac O'Doherty took inspiration from the McManus finishing manual and maintained his accuracy from frees irrespective of distance or angle.
Brian Cassidy's third goal was a key reason why the sides were deadlocked at the end of normal time (3-12 to 1-18) before the McManus v O'Doherty shoot-out resumed in extra-time.
It was a brace of stylish points from play complemented by yet another score from a free that enabled McManus to prod his team over the line.
But rarely has victory been so hard won.
Cushendall: E Gillan; A Graffin, M Burke, A McNaughton; E Campbell 0-1, R McCambridge, S Delargy; S McNaughton 0-2, P McGill; K McKeegan 0-2, N McManus 0-12 (10 frees), D McNaughton 0-3,; D Kearney, S McAfee 0-1, C McNaughton 1-2. Subs: C Carson 0-1 for Kearney (45), A Delargy for C McNaughton (73). Yellow cards: McManus (10), Kearney (30), S Delargy (31), S McNaughton (53), D McNaughton (64).
Slaughtneil: O O'Doherty 0-1 (free); M Kearney 0-1, S Cassidy, Shane McGuigan; K McKaigue, M McGrath, C McKenna; C McKaigue 0-2, P McNeill; M McGuigan, C O'Doherty 0-11 (all frees), G O'Kane 1-1; B Rodgers 1-1, Se McGuigan, B Cassidy 1-1. Subs: B Og Corbett for Kearney (54), P Kearney for McKenna (54), J Mulholland for McGrath (62), McGrath for O'Kane (68). Yellow cards: McGrath (14), McKenna (25), Campbell (60), Rodgers (79).