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Slaughtneil calm Gaels

Derry champions survive major scare as Canavan's men blow great chance

By Declan Bogue

You have to admire the honesty in Slaughtneil assistant manager John Joe Kearney when he describes the closing stages of their Ulster quarter-final win over Cavan Gaels.

"We were only hanging on, that's being honest, in the end up," he admitted.

The reason for that was Seanie Johnston - oh yes, him again - stood over a free kick that anyone who had witnessed his previous five successful attempts in this game, would have expected him to float over and bring the game to extra time, poised as it was with the slenderest of margins favouring the men from south Derry.

Johnston was 35 yards out and the chance was just right of the posts, but without a flutter of a breeze he looped an uncharacteristically sloppy shot wide on his near post.

It gave Slaughtneil a merciful reprieve. By this stage they had only scored one point in the second half from Christopher Bradley and that shot prompted a debate among referee Martin McNally and his linesmen and umpires.

In the end, the point stood, accompanied by a Gerard Bradley point with practically the last play of the game.

"I never thought he would miss it," said Kearney of Johnston's error. "A lot of free takers I think make the mistake of kicking a big high ball. And it was slightly to the right side for him. And there was a discussion over a point we had as well, but it was given so that was the difference."

Gaels manager Peter Canavan wasn't laying any blame at the door of Johnston.

"Seanie would normally put them over and his free-kick for us in the last two matches have been excellent. It was excellent today bar that one. Look, there were other chances too that we didn't put away. A couple of possible goal chances."

However, the paucity of their challenge is also illustrated by their tally of just three wides.

After being so impressive in the opening half, Slaughtneil went into the break five points up. Canavan's side hardly seemed all that interested in affairs under the Benbradagh mountain.

Their tackling was weak, their short kickouts to Niall Murray - so effective in their own domestic Championship - were disrupted by Christopher Bradley's attentions, and they could not make any headway against a hard-hitting Derry outfit.

However, they made three changes at the break, recalibrating their game by introducing Martin Dunne, Niall Smith and Paul Graham, inserting some energy.

Francis McEldowney had kept Conor McClarey scoreless for the first half, and managed the same against his replacement, Martin Dunne. However, Dunne required watching and he won the first free that Johnston converted to start the Cavan fightback. A minute later, Barry McGuigan was on hand to block a Dunne shot destined to clear the crossbar.

Niall Murray made his way upfield to kick another point and with Cavan pressing higher, Paul Graham kicked another along with two frees from Johnston.

Slaughtneil tried to change tack and replaced a number of forwards.

"There were a few men, particularly in the forward line, who just seemed to fade," Kearney said. "I don't know what it was, whether they just ran out of steam or whatever. It happens some days but anyway, we got through."

Their second half performance was mystifying when you consider that four of their six starting forwards scored from play in the first half. By way of contrast, only Johnstone managed a score from play in that period. Otherwise in open play, McKaigue was on top throughout that match-up.

When the Gaels pegged the deficit back to a single point, Paul Bradley had a free to give Slaughneil some breathing room, but sent it wide, before Christopher Bradley chalked up their fourth of the second half and ninth overall.

With Murray pushing forward again they looked to land the equaliser, but he was fouled as he got his shot away by Patsy Bradley. Johnston's failure to covert the free will haunt him and Cavan Gaels over the winter.

Slaughtneil now meet Clontibret in the Ulster semi-final next Sunday in Omagh. Chrissy McKaigue will most likely be marking Conor McManus and barring a draw, both men will be making for the airport afterwards to join up with the Ireland International Rules team in Australia.

Belfast Telegraph

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