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Cushendall win at a cost

Ballyran 0-10 Cushendall 1-15

Just champion: Cushendall players celebrate after winning the Ulster title
Just champion: Cushendall players celebrate after winning the Ulster title
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Ruairi Ógs Cushendall secured their 11th Ulster senior hurling title in front of a healthy 3,742 attendance at the Athletic Grounds, but may be counting the cost of that win after what looks like a serious injury to their inspirational defender Arron Graffin.

They will go on to the All-Ireland semi-final in February to meet the winners of St Thomas' and Liam Mellows who play in the Galway county final, but they showed enough here to indicate that if they get their main men all healthy and available, they will be equipped for the challenge.

One of those men includes Conor Carson, who was unable to secure leave from his Cadetship with Aer Lingus for the day.

"It wasn't that he didn't want to be here, of course he did, but he's just started a new job, literally last Monday," reasoned their manager Eamon Gillan.

"He's doing things this weekend, he's registering his citizenship and all that, he's going to be there for a year or two."

In the Antrim county final, the Ruairi Óg tactics at times were beautiful in their simplicity. Neil McManus would catch a puck out and rain ball on top of the strong Carson.

However, Sean McAfee was drafted in and while those McManus deliveries came as expected, the strong wind blowing towards the Dalton Road End meant they carried over the Ballycran bar.

While McManus had an off-day from the dead ball in the county final, by half time he had already amassed seven points, four of those from frees from distance.

He also adorned the game with a point from play when he caught Cormac McAlister's sideline cut into his left hand and drilled over from 70 metres. His second from play was fed to him by the excellent Arron Graffin and was planted over in bad temper after taking a late swipe across his hand a minute previous.

Ballycran struggled against the wind to break the tackle and in the loose, Ruairi Óg were much more ravenous.

For all that, they were just three points adrift when disaster struck in the 24th minute.

Cushendall full-forward Donal McNaughton escaped his marker Paudie Flynn and made straight for goal. His shot was at a comfortable height for 'Cran goalkeeper Stephen Keith, but was hit with such venom that he could only parry and Stephen McAfee - Carson's replacement - whipped the loose ball to the net.

1-11 to 0-6 up at half-time, Cushendall knew they needed to contain.

"We said at half time the next 10 or 15 minutes was crucial to get a run on it," said Eamon Gillan.

"And we just couldn't get a score. We just kept plugging and they missing frees kept us in it to a certain extent. At a crucial time they missed two or three frees and that kept us ahead by five-point cushion which we maintained."

Ballycran were awarded a series of frees that ranked between easy and mildly difficult, but had a nightmare from the dead ball, Scott Nicholson, Colum McManus and Conor Woods all missing straightforward chances in front of the posts.

"You hate blaming guys on frees because they are brave enough to take those frees," said 'Cran manager Gary Savage.

"We missed four or five in a row there and it could have swung the momentum the other way. It's one of those things, I don't want to blame anybody."

After that, the momentum shifted away from Ballycran. A late goal chance arrived for them with three minutes of normal time when a Michael Hughes delivery wasn't dealt with by Ruairi Ógs goalkeeper Eoin Gillan. While the ball sat up on the sandy pitch, it was the maroon figure of David Kearney that flicked it out for a '65' that Nicholson sent wide.

Referee James Connors signalled that there would be 12 minutes of time added on, chiefly because of Graffin's injury, but it was Cushendall that finished with a scoring burst, two McManus frees and one from play from Eoghan Campbell to pull clear.

Afterwards, the team huddled around Graffin, prone on a stretcher in the tunnel to get the team photograph.

They now go on to play the Galway champions, between St Thomas' and Liam Mellows.

"It's a massive step up and we've an awful lot of work to do to be able to get to that stage," said Gillan.

"The effort's there, there's a few hurlers there and we can improve. We'll be giving it everything we have to get through to another All-Ireland final."

Gillan paid tribute to some others in the camp and their willingness to play through the pain barrier.

"Martin Burke, who got injured at the county, thought he'd never hurl again. He was fit to come back a few weeks ago with a broken bone in his neck and he's still hurling with it.

"Alex Delargy cut the tips of three fingers mid-summer and we thought he was out for the year, but we got him strapped up and did everything we could do, and he's back with a county medal and an Ulster medal."

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