JOHNNY McINTOSH: Written in the stars

SO here we have it, Loughgiel and Cushendall will duke it out for the Volunteer Cup as the Antrim Senior Hurling Championship reaches its conclusion.

First things first, for Loughgiel to overcome Dunloy in the semi-final was the big upset of the year, but for me, it’s almost written in the stars that Cushendall win the big one.

Right from the off there was just a feeling that destiny was going to lead Cushendall to this year’s title. John McKillop, their team mascot, died during the year. It was awfully sad and I think that’s brought them even closer together and they must feel that it would be fitting to achieve it for John.

There’s also the fact that Cushendall look like they have a real bee in their bonnet about going on and winning the title this year. Everyone’s said all along that the only team that can challenge Dunloy is Cushendall.

Now in fairness Loughgiel were very very impressive when they knocked out Dunloy. They’d a couple of downright poor performances in the group stages but they got through. They had a win over St John’s in the quarters and everyone said St John’s hadn’t turned up but I was really really impressed with Dunloy. They beat them by nearly 20 points, it was a super display, but all the talk was that Dunloly would still beat them in the semi-final.

But Dunloy didn’t turn up, they looked jaded and tired. The wear and tear probably took its toll, Dunloy won five out of the last six titles and they had some lads who literally played in the All-Ireland Club final and then a week later played in the first round of the National League and that’s not good. It’s straight into a very heavy club schedule and allied to that, a lot of them are dual players and they reached the football final as well.

It probably makes people appreciate more the achievement of the Sleacht Néill team as they managed to perform at the top level in both codes for years, albeit they’ve maybe been overtaken by Glen in the football. It’s very difficult to ask amateur players to keep going and I think unfortunately for Dunloy it all came to a head in the last two weekends, they’ve looked really jaded. Now Kevin Molloy was injured who was a major loss, he’s been an unsung hero for the last 15 years.

They made about seven positional changes against Cargin to correct things, so they didn’t just replace him but they had to make various changes. On top of that, I think they just looked tired. To be totally honest with about 15 minutes to go against Cargin I could see some of their heads start to wilt a bit. It was the end of a long run and I’m sure it was emotionally draining for them. It’s tough for them, they could’ve won a historic double and now it’s all over after two weekends.

But back to the final. Loughgiel are going for five in a row in the minors, they are producing serious, serious talent. They are where Dunloy are about six years ago when the likes of Keelan Molloy and Ryan Elliott and Conal Cunning were very young. They went on to dominate and I could see Loughgiel’s dominance coming too.

But that’s why I’m so confident Cushendall will win. Cushendall’s defence is just incredible and I’d be surprised if Loughgiel can manage more than 15 or 16 scores. If the conditions are in any way poor they’re incredible at stymieing teams, they drop back their two midfielders. Loughgiel’s forward line is probably a few years behind Cushendall’s defence and I can see them getting swamped.

There’s the form McManus is in, he scored 4-8 in the league stages against Loughgiel and young Joseph McLaughlin is playing well, he got three goals against Ballycastle in the semi-final. They have goals in them Eoghan Campbell has also been exceptional at centre half-back.

The other point is that there’s a bit of a feeling in Cushendall that this may be their last for a while. A few boys are ticking towards the end of their career and Loughgiel are coming through as well. They’re thinking we need to win this one, to get one more title under our hats. I think it’s written in the stars but everyone in Loughgiel will be delighted to hear me say they’re massive underdogs! They can go out with no massive and will be able to freely. They have fantastic players like James McNaughton, if he hits form he can tear Cushendall apart part on his own. Loughgiel’s defence has been very solid too.

It’s an interesting one but for me it’s hard to see past Cushendall, especially if it’s wet and slippery and heavy. On a dry day it could be a very open game but I’m going to go for Cushendall to do it either way.

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