Cushendall prove that if at first you don’t succeed…

AIB All-Ireland Club SHC semi-final - Ruairi Og, Cushendall (Antrim) 3-12 Sarsfields (Galway) 1-6: Earlier this year, when Neil McManus and his girlfriend sat down to book their flights to Asia for the beginning of a six-month round the world trip, they picked May as their travel date.

Cushendall prove that if at first you don’t succeed…

McManus had already informed the Antrim management he’d miss the entire year but knew he’d be required throughout spring by his club.

“I had no doubt we were getting to this All-Ireland final,” said McManus matter of factly, his 1-7 haul on Saturday helping to turn his prediction into reality.

Few outside of Cushendall shared McManus’ optimism and with an All-Ireland semi-final record that, until Saturday, read: played eight, lost eight, they couldn’t be blamed.

All of that wretched history was set aside in Páirc Tailteann, however, as the Glens men finally came good at the semi-final stage, upsetting the odds by leading from pillar to post.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise as that statistic of losing all eight semi-finals was a little misleading.

McManus recalls watching, as a six-year old, his club giving the Lohans and Wolfe Tones of Clare the fright of their lives in the 1997 semi-final. Three years later, they took reigning All-Ireland champions St Josephs Doora Barefield to a replay.

In 2009, it took a monstrous line ball conversion from Brian Phelan to earn Waterford kingpins De La Salle extra-time. Having waited so long, good things were bound to come to Cushendall eventually.

It was an emotional afternoon then, immediately reminiscent of Parnell Park in early 2012 when Loughgiel Shamrocks shocked Na Piarsaigh in similar circumstances.

At half-time on Saturday, with Cushendall 1-4 to 0-5 up and in control as they prepared to play with the wind, a lone female voice in the main stand started to sing. Soon, they were all at it and when play resumed the same neat rhythms were evident in the Ruairi Ogs’ play as they turned the screw on an underperforming Sarsfields in quite ruthless fashion.

McManus, whose fourth minute penalty conversion initially put his team on the way, took his tally to 1-3 early in the second-half with a couple of converted frees. But the decisive score was sandwiched in between those points when Sean McAfee powered through for a great 32nd minute solo goal.

Wearing number 12 but playing at full-forward, McAfee troubled Sarsfields all afternoon, winning the penalty that McManus converted and then netting himself.

Ryan McCambridge was outstanding at the back for Cushendall and played a large part in limiting Sarsfields to just a point from play.

Paddy McGill weighed in with three important points though it was a terrific overall team performance, as good as Cushendall could possibly have hoped.

With the sniff of victory in their nostrils, they closed out the game well, ensuring that Joseph Cooney’s flicked 41st minute goal for Sarsfields, when he redirected Niall Morrissey’s 65 to the net, was only a minor speed wobble.

A red letter day for Cushendall was underlined with a third goal in injury time. That it came from 38-year old sub Karl McKeegan, a club and county stalwart, who poked home from close range, amounted to the cherry on top.

It told a tale of Cushendall’s dominance that they won comfortably and still had 14 wides in total.

“We’ve been nine points down, eight points down and six points down in three different games within Antrim,” said McManus.

“But we came back each time. We actually didn’t know what to do with ourselves when we were ahead against Sarsfields!” It’ll all be for nought if they don’t complete the job on St Patrick’s Day however. “I suppose we’ll be underdogs again but I’ll put it to you this way, hurling is not a hobby for us, it’s not a pastime, it’s a complete and utter obsession,” said McManus. “Like, Saturday would have been a very good day to go robbing houses in Cushendall because there wouldn’t have been many people at home, I can assure you.

“I had no doubt we were getting to this All-Ireland final. I just feel there’s an exceptional spirit within this team. People say it all the time, and I know it’s a cliché, this ‘never say die’ attitude that people talk about. But I think we’ve shown it in the way we’ve come back in games it really is there with this team.”

One more win and the All-Ireland roll of honour will show two winners from Antrim since 2012. Weaker hurling county indeed.

“We’ve just kept emphasising, the older lads like myself who remember the near misses, that nobody cares about the hard luck stories,” said McManus. “We know the score, it’s half-time and the second-half will be a lot harder on St Patrick’s Day.”

RUAIRI OG, CUSHENDALL:

E Gillan; R McCambridge, M Burke, A Graffin; D Kearney, E Campbell, S Delargy; S McNaughton, A Delargy (0-1); C Carson (0-1), N McManus (1-7, 1-0pen, 0-4f, 0-1 65), S McAfee (1-0); P McGill (0-3) D McNaughton, C McNaughton.

Subs:

K McKeegan (1-0) for C McNaughton (44), C McAllister for D McNaughton (59).

SARSFIELDS:

C Dolan; E Cleary, D Skehill, C Murray; N Quinn, K Hynes, R Quinn; J Cooney (1-0), I Fox; A Ward (0-1), K Wade, N Morrissey (0-5 0-5f); I Skehill, N Kelly, K Cooney.

Subs:

Ivan Kenny for I Skehill (45), Joseph Burke for Wade (50), Sean Kelly for Morrissey (52), Eoghan Spellman for K Cooney (60).

Referee:

P O’Dwyer (Carlow).

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