Final dream for Cushendall as they power past Sarsfields
Cushendall 3-12 Sarsfields 1-6
Cushendall booked their place in the All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship final for the first time with a stunning 3-12 to 1-6 win over Galway champions Sarsfield's in Navan on Saturday afternoon.
The Antrim champions were by far the better team on the day and will try to emulate local rivals Loughgiel (1983 and 2012) by winning a Senior All-Ireland club hurling title.
As the final whistle blew on a cold, blustery day in Pairc Tailteann, thongs of Cushendall fans ran onto the pitch to greet their heroes.
For manager John 'Smokey' McKillop, the job is only half done and he insists his side are a match for any club side in the country.
"Every player, subs and all, gave 100% - that's all I can ask for," he said. "It's not about me. I don't care if Joe Soap manages this team. It's about Cushendall, the club, the parish.
"We're every bit as good as any team in Ireland.
"Getting to the final is brilliant, but now we have to concentrate and win the final. The job is only half done as far as I'm concerned."
So often the bridesmaid, Ruairi Ogs have won 10 Ulster titles but had failed to reach the St Patrick's Day finale.
Cushendall secured their most recent Ulster title back in October with a dramatic extra-time victory over a gallant Slaughtneil side in the Athletic Grounds in Armagh.
McManus was the hero for the Antrim champions on that occasion as his 13 points helped Cushendall land the Four Seasons Cup to make amends for their shock defeat to Portaferry in the provincial decider 12 months previous.
The Cushendall ace helped his side get their semi-final off to a dream start after referee Paud O'Dwyer awarded a penalty after Sean McAfee was hauled down by Sarsfield's Cathal Murray. The challenge earned Murray a yellow card and McManus found the back of the net, despite not making the cleanest of strikes with the hurl.
Buoyed by early goal, Cushendall attacked at will and were by far the better team in the opening quarter. McManus missed a hat-trick of chances to add to his tally but Paddy McGill landed two points from play to make sure the Ruairi Ogs were rewarded for their superiority.
In defence Ryan McCambridge was a colossus, making half a dozen clearances as Sarsfield's were forced to rely on the accuracy of Niall Morrissey from frees to remain in touch.
The half forward scored all but one of his side's first half tally of 0-5 with Alan Ward scoring the final point of the half as the Antrim champions took a 1-4 to 0-5 lead into the break.
Cushendall didn't let up in the second half and they plundered their second goal on 33 minutes after a long ball from Shane McNaughton released Sean McAfee who powered past Darren Skehill before unleashing his shot past Dolan into the goal.
Any notion that John McKillop's side would have things all their own way was dispelled though when Sarsfield's captain Joe Cooney got his hurl to Morrissey's delivery into the danger area and his flick was enough to divert the sliotar past Eoin Gillan. Alec Delargy replied instantly with a point for the Ulster champions, who looked the more composed of the two teams on the field.
As Sarsfield's launched hopeful high balls into their full-forward line, Cushendall were able to hit them on the break further points from McGill and McManus (two) put the game beyond the Galway men.
Just to put the icing on the cake, substitute Karl McKeegan hounded Dolan late on, forcing the Sarsfield's keeper to relinquish possession and the Cushendall veteran finished from close range to give his side an emphatic and deserved 12-point win.
The Antrim kingpins will now face Na Piarsaigh in the final after the Limerick side defeated Oulart The Ballagh 1-22 to 0-20 after extra-time in their semi-final showdown.
Sarsfield's: C Dolan; C Murray, D Skehill, E Cleary; N Quinn, K Hynes, R Quinn; J Cooney (1-0), I Fox; N Morrissey (0-5, 0-5fs), N Kelly, K Wade; I Skehill, K Cooney, A Ward (0-1). Subs: I Kenny for I Skehill (45), J Burke for Wade (50), S Kelly for Morrissey (53).
Cushendall: E Gillan; R McCambridge, M Burke, A Grafin; D Kearney, E Canpbell, S Delargy; S McNaughton, A Delargy (0-1); C Carson (0-1), N McManus (1-7, 1-0 pen, 0-4fs, 0-1 65), S McAfee (1-0); P McGill (0-3), D McNaughton, C McNaughton. Subs: K McKeegan (1-0) for C McNaughton (43), C McAllister for D McNaughton.
Referee: P O'Dywer (Carlow)