De La Salle 1-21 Ruairí Óg Cushendall 1-19 (after extra time)
The fireworks were to be saved for Semple Stadium last Sunday, conventional wisdom suggested.
In truth, the sparkly spoils were shared between Thurles and Donnycarney, as two of the finest club hurling semi-finals ever played saw Portumna and De La Salle emerge to contest the Saint Patrick’s Day showpiece.
De La Salle’s refusal to die, even when the tide was firmly in gallant Cushendall’s favour during a pulsating second half, was real guts and glory stuff.
As the Antrim men seized the advantage, inspired by an incredible display by centre-forward Niall McManus who repeatedly ran Kevin Moran ragged, De La Salle grittily clung to their coat-tails.
But having made a mess of a short sideline ball eight minutes from time, duly punished by Patrick McGill to put Cushendall three points up, the fat lady in the Glens must have been clearing her throat.
But not for the first time this season, De La Salle dug deep, determined to keep their dream alive.
Captain John Mullane, his right hand a bloodstained mess, his legend growing with every outing, fired over another cracking point with five minutes remaining. They trailed by two points.
Bryan Phelan, who’d demonstrated some terrific stick work during this palpitating gut-wrencher of a game, knocked over a free to bring it down to the minimum with four minutes left.
But back came Cushendall, to the delight of their vocal following and the stylish McManus (who on the basis of this display wouldn’t look out of place in black and amber) put two between the sides again. Less than three minutes to go.
By now, the tension was close to unbearable as Francis McAuley’s puckout bobbled over the line, over 50 metres from the Cushendall uprights. Stoppage time. De La Salle ball.
Kevin Moran had volunteered to take it, but in truth only one man was in contention for the strike. ‘The Bull’, who’d already swerved a cut between the posts in the 25th minute, steadied himself, realising the significance of this moment.
Phelan arched over the ball, sliding his hurley under the sod beneath it, striking cleanly, sending it skyward and true. In years to come, lore will recall it was an effort taken from his own 21.
The Cushendall keeper was powerless as the midfielder’s magnificent effort beautifully sailed over to give the gasping crowd another 20 minutes of this wonderful contest to enjoy. 1-13 each. Eamonn Morris blows his full-time whistle. Extra-time.
In an instant, the body language of both teams changed; despite the Ulster champions being restored to the full compliment following Declan McKillop’s second half dismissal. The momentum was with De La Salle, just moments after it had been anything but.
They were level at full-time and they’d been level at half-time after an opening half-hour in which the Waterford and Munster champions had bolted out of the traps.
Just four minutes in, the energetic Páidí Nevin surged past a couple of would-be challengers, feeding the ball to Dean Twomey who blasted the ball beyond McAuley.
But, in setting a tone that would remain in place throughout, Cushendall’s superb stickwork soon got them off the mark, a fine distance strike from corner back Aaron Graffin opening their account.
In the seventh minute, only a tremendous Alan Kelly block prevented McManus a certain goal, something Graffin repeated at the other end, his hurley splitting when brilliantly denying Mullane a green-flagger on the quarter-hour.
While Lee Hayes scored tremendous points from both flanks, Karl McKeegan and the lively Shane McNaughton added to Cushendall’s tally and the Ulstermen finished the half the stronger, hitting three successive points to level matters.
Upon the resumption, McKeegan and Mullane (another beauty) traded points before McNaughton blasted the ball into the net after Stephen Brenner had batted away McManus’s powerful strike.
Cushendall led by three points, the largest advantage they were to enjoy, despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession and territory during the second half.
Four successive wides (two from Phelan and one each from Conan Watt and Nevin) were the result of hastily hit efforts as De La Salle’s quality of play began to suffer.
And on ploughed Cushendall, inspired by McKeegan and McManus, the latter treating Kevin Moran to arguably his sternest ever examination in club colours.
But they couldn’t put De La Salle away, with a point from the hard-working Derek McGrath some 18 minutes in only the third they’d managed since half-time. And that doggedness, despite Cushendall producing the better hurling, ensured an extra 20 minutes.
With buckets of energy, Nevin proved a magnificent contributor during extra-time, as Cushendall’s reserves began to run out. De La Salle led by two as the sides changed ends but the game remained in the balance.
Substitute Brian Farrell reacted smartly to Phelan’s short sideline to put three between the teams, but again Cushendall responded through Conor McCambridge and the excellent McManus.
The Bull knocked over another free with three minutes remaining only for McCambrige to instantly respond at the other end, his well-struck free batted over the bar by the alert Brenner.
Try as they did, the Cushendall stylists were not to add to their tally. And in one of those ‘cometh the hour moments’, a magnificent take from Kevin Moran broke the Antrim team’s resistance, the resulting ball breaking upfield to who else but John Mullane to complete the scoring.
It was entirely fitting that an epic hurler brought down the curtain on an epic afternoon. What a match. Portumna await in Croke Park on Patrick’s Day. De La Salle abú!
De La Salle: S Brenner; A Kelly, I Flynn, M Doherty; D Russell, K Moran, S Daniels; B Phelan, C Watt; P Nevin, D McGrath, L Hayes; J Quirke, J Mullane, D Twomey. Subs: T Kearney for Quirke (40 mins), D Greene for Kelly, A Kelly for McGrath (ET), B Farrell for Watt (67 mins), J Foran for Hayes (80 mins).
Scorers: B Phelan (0-6; 0-4f, 0-2 sidelines), J Mullane (0-5), L Hayes (0-3), D Twomey (1-0), P Nevin (0-2), S Daniels, D McGrath, J Quirke, B Farrell and D Greene (0-1 each).
Cushendall: F McAuley; A Graffin, O Scullion, C Carson; D McNaughton, K Elliott, M McCambridge; K McKeegan, P McGill; B Delargy, D McKillop, S Delargy; S McNaughton, N McManus, A Delargy. Subs: C McCambridge for C Carson (21 mins); C Carson for B Delargy (59 mins); M Burke (Introduced at Extra Time); E Laverty for S McNaughton (67 mins); B Delargy for A Delargy (67 mins); J Carson for Elliot (76 mins).
Scorers: K McKeegan (0-5; 0-4f, 0-1 65′), S McNaugton (1-1), N McManus (0-4), A Delargy (0-3), C McCambridge (0-3, 0-1f), A Graffin, S Delargy and P McGill (0-1 each).
Referee: E Morris (Dublin).