Shamrocks bid to close forty year gap

Contract Services Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final 2011

County champions Loughgiel go into Sunday’s final against Cushendall bidding to put titles back to back for the first time since 1971.

In a repeat of last season’s final the Shamrocks bid to emulate the team of forty years ago whose win against Glenariffe saw them retain the title they had won at the expense of Ballycastle the previous year.

Cushendall’s bid to avenge last season’s defeat has been badly hampered by the loss of their top player Neill McManus who has been ruled out with a medial ligament injury. The loss of such a player is a real blow to any team, but they showed in the semi-final that they can win games without him when they fought back from eleven points down to beat surprise packets St Gall’s.

Loughgiel will be at full strength with the return of their talisman Liam Watson who missed the semi-final win over Ballycastle because of suspension. Watson starred for the Shamrocks in the second-half of their quarter-final win Rossa when his four points were a vital part of his team’s win. He was missing for the semi-final win over Ballycastle but the Shamrocks won convincingly without him that day.

Cushendall have been pushed all the way in their two championship wins to date. In the quarter-final against neighbours Glenariffe they were expected to win with a bit to spare, but it took a fantastic injury time save from goalkeeper Ronan Kearney to deny the Oisins a draw. In their semi-final against Division 2 side St Gall’s they had to produce the mother of all comebacks to get the better of the Belfast men. Eleven points down early in the second-half, and still eight adrift with eight minutes left for play, they showed great character to turn the game around before sealing it with a late Conor Carson point.

Both these teams are vastly experienced when it comes to county final appearances. Loughgiel will be appearing in their eighth final in nine years while Cushendall will be lining out for the sixth time in seven years. In fact it will be the fifth time in seven years these two have met in the final. Cushendall won the 05, 06 and 08 deciders while Loughgiel won last season’s final to end a twenty-one year run without senior success.

There are unlikely to be many changes on either team for Sunday’s showdown with Loughgiel starting with DD Quinn in goals behind a full-back line of Paul Gillen, Neilly McGarry and Donal McKinley. Tony McCloskey, Martin Scullion and team captain Johnny Campbell will be the likely starters in the half-back line with Barney McAuley and Mark McFadden teaming up again at midfield. Watson’s return leaves the selectors with a bit of a headache as far as the forward line is concerned for all six that started again Ballycastle all performed well.

If Declan Laverty is fully recovered from the injury which saw him stretchered off in the semi-final he will probably start on the ‘40’ again with Eddie McCloskey on his right and Joey Scullion on his left while Shay Casey, Benny McCarry and Damian Laverty all did enough in the semi-final to warrant inclusion. However when you have player of Watson’s talent at your disposal you are unlikely to leave him on the bench so one of the six will have to make way.

Ronan Kearney will again guard the Ruairi Og goals behind a full-back line of Ronan Kearney, Terry McAllister, Odhran Scullion and Sean Delargy. Martin Burke, team captain Donal McNaughton and Arron Graffin should start again in the half-back line with the experienced Karl McKeegan teaming up with nineteen-year-old Paddy McNaughton at midfield. McKeegan played a big part in the second-half comeback against St Gall’s and how he and McNaughton do against their opposite numbers McAuley and McFadden could have a big bearing on the outcome of the game.

Conor Carson has been moved around the field this season on the Ruairi Og team but his performance in the semi-final win over St Gall’s would suggest that the management team will use him on the ‘40’ again on Sunday with Brian Delargy on one side and Paddy McGill on the other. Aiden Delargy, Declan McKillop and Shane McNaughton were the full-forward line in the semi-final but Eunan McKillop and ‘Fred’ McAuley, who both hit vital scores when introduced against St Gall’s, must be in line for a starting place this time around.

With McManus missing from the Cushendall ranks Loughgiel must start favourites to bridge that forty year gap and put titles back-to-back, but just two weeks ago Tipperary were in a similar position against Kilkenny and we all know how that one ended.

Cushendall will be desperate to avoid their third final defeat in a row. They lead the finals head-to-head between these sides by 3 to 1 but Loughgiel will feel they have the talent to close that gap on Sunday and move level at the top of the honours list with Ballycastle on seventeen titles each.