Waterford and Munster champions De La Salle will go into Sunday’s less-glamorous but no-less-important All-Ireland semi-final pairing in Parnell Park in the unfamiliar position of outright favourites.
In reaching the penultimate stage, Cushendall confounded the critics who thought them over-the-hill. They began the season with absolutely no form and a series of league defeats, but ended the year by equalling Dunloly’s record of nine provincial titles.
‘The Ruairi Ogs’ first claimed the Antrim championship title and, then the provincial crown after a cracking contest with Ballygalget at Casement Park, emerging victors by the bare minimum, 1-14 to 1-13, to avenge their defeat by the Downmen three years before.
With players of the calibre of the veteran Conor and Michael McCambridge, Paddy McGill (top marksman in the Ulster final with six points), Sean Delargy, Donal and Shane ‘Sambo Junior’ McNaughton (their usual scorer-in-chief), Aiden Delargy and Neil McManus, Karl McKeegan, Aaron Graffin and Oran Scullion, they are a strong unit, particularly defensively.
Not the most free-scoring of sides, ‘The Dalls’ depend on a strong rearguard, boasting four of Antrim’s regular backline – though so did Adare did up until the second-half of the Munster decider when Mullane and co produced a sudden scoring burst to blitz the Limerick men who’d looked home and dry at half-time.
Though rated underdogs, the feeling up North is that this is Cushendall’s best chance to reach a first ever All-Ireland final.
Or rather Sunday is seen as their All-Ireland final given that no-one, not even themselves perhaps, would give them a prayer against either Ballyhale or Portumna. (Nor, for that matter, would most experts offer De La Salle much hope in that company.)
The Déise’s representatives will be looking to make the most of the chances that comes their way from the off and hope to put sufficient daylight between two sides who’ve both been finishing matches strongly. Like their De La Salle counterparts, the Cushendall management team of James McNaughton, Fergus McAllister and Aidan McAteer will have their charges well drilled, having taken just one week’s break over Christmas.
De La Salle are 1-4 favourites with Paddy Power (‘Dall are 7-2), and most observers would feel that if they can replicate the heights that saw them past Sarsfields of Cork in the Munster semi-final, they should be home and hosed.
But, as can be read elsewhere this page, manager Owen Dunphy and experienced players like captain John Mullane won’t entertain any hint of complacency, with star-studded Mount Sion’s shock one-point defeat at the same stage by Dunloy in 2003 an example of where the best-laid plans for St Patrick’s Day can be ruined by form, fate – or a scandalous refereeing decision.
It should be noted that it was against Munster opposition that Cushendall came closest to reaching the Holy Grail; Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton and co taking Clare’s St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield to a semi-final replay in 2000.
Then two years ago the Glensmen gave Loughrea a right fright in Mullingar, only denied by an injury-time goal. The winners’ manager Pat O’Connor gave them “amazing credit” for “a fantastic display… full of fight and vigour.”
So De La Salle you’ve been warned. There’s nothing cushty against Cushendall.
Parnell Park, Dublin, Sunday, 2.30. Referee: Eamon Morris (ET if necessary), *Live on WLRfm, deferred coverage TG4
*See Friday’s ‘Weekender’ edition for further preview coverage.