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Ulster final will be no walk in the park

Antrim captain Carson and Armagh skipper Carville have had a year of ups and downs, but both are now striving to secure Cup triumph

By Declan Bogue

Just before Republic of Ireland ace Robbie Brady's head connected with that wicked cross from Wes Hoolahan in Lille, Antrim hurling captain Conor Carson had nearly given up hope.

A split second later, he and girlfriend Patrice were engulfed in an eruption of joy behind the goals as the ball rested in the net in front of him. Brady and his Republic team-mates celebrated just yards away and Carson asked himself, 'can sport get any better than this?'

He knew it could get a lot worse, of course.

Well beaten in the All-Ireland club final with Ruairi Óg Cushendall in March, he had the Christy Ring final controversy hanging over him. Nominated by his club to be county captain for the year, he booked his trip to the Euro 2016 finals in the belief that the hurling season would have been largely wrapped up.

He attended the Republic-Belgium game, was behind the nets for that goal in the match against Italy and would have been in Paris for the France clash but, instead, duty called for a replay that never should have been after the bean-counters got it so badly wrong on the Croke Park scoreboard in the first clash.

"It was very good fun, but I cut it short and came home. I hadn't planned on being at home, I wasn't due back until the week after," the engineer with Bombardier reveals.

Of the finish of the victory over Italy, which sealed the Republic's qualification for the last 16 stage, he recalls: "It was just surreal, the goal at the end was unbelievable and it was the longest five minutes of my life."

It's not for all couples, but he and Patrice had combined a visit to Poland with Euro 2012. The chance to do it in France was too tempting to pass up. The scheduling also suited, until the events of June 4.

As for getting back into hurling mode, it wasn't as difficult as you might think. He insists: "Missing it would have annoyed me. Things turned out farcical - fixing games on a Tuesday, then re-fixing it on a Thursday - I don't think they think of players' lives and how they might pan out.

"But it would have annoyed me if I hadn't come back."

Tomorrow he leads from the front as Antrim full-forward as they face Armagh, seeking to secure their 56th Ulster Hurling Championship: the Liam Harvey Cup.

His opposite number, beaming with gusto on a sunnier day than the picture suggests in Belfast's Botanic Gardens, comes at it from a different angle.

A commercial solicitor with Arthur Cox in Belfast, Cathal Carville came up against Carson in the Ulster club final towards the end of last year for Middletown. Now he captains Armagh in only their third Ulster final, having been there in 1946 and as recently as 2011. This time, however, feels different.

"After we beat Down in the semi-final there were no unbelievable scenes or sense of 'what a result' as it was in 2011 in Casement," Carville states.

"This year is the third final ever. It's still massive. It was a big shock in 2011, but five years on, we would have expected to beat Down. We had beaten them in the league in the final. We expected to win."

Armagh's emergence as a hurling force has been a triumph of strategy. Setting themselves new targets only feels natural to a group that place emphasis on hitting their stepping stones along the way.

In football, Carville won an All-Ireland at minor level with Armagh and suffers no inferiority complex.

He says: "We see ourselves as the second team in Ulster at the minute - obviously the league would show that, given that Derry and Down are in the league below us and we are in the same league as Antrim."

Asked if the Saffrons' odd, haphazard year gives the Orchard a serious chance of success, he answers with the clinical mind of the legal profession: "What I have said is that we are going up to win. Irrespective of what season Antrim have had and what kind of difficulties they have, we can only trade on things that are within our control."

It's Carson's job to keep the heads in the Antrim dressing room calm. After their Christy Ring final replay loss to Meath, the players scattered like mice at crossroads, only reconvening on Tuesday night. Try as they might, the Cup farce lingers on.

Carson adds: "As much as you would be annoyed about things, and how the game with Meath went, we should never have got ourselves into that situation in the first place. We should have finished it off the first day, so we only have ourselves to blame."

In Armagh, the focus is clear. Their ambition is in front of them.

Carville says: "In terms of where they are as a team, we take this competition very seriously and are going up to Owenbeg to win Ulster."

Wouldn't that be something else altogether?

Belfast Telegraph


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