By Shaun Casey
“WHEN the whistle goes there’s always that initial relief that you’ve made it,” said Paul Cunningham after guiding Craobh Rua to the Ulster Junior final with a three-point win over Con Magee’s.
The Camlough outfit face Monaghan side Carrickmacross in Páirc Esler on Saturday afternoon.
The two-in-a-row Armagh champions trailed by one at the break but used the conditions to their advantage after the turnaround. “They had the wind in the first half, they went 5-2 up. At that stage we weren’t panicked or anything because we were still hurling within ourselves, probably a wee bit nervous.
“The wind was probably a two or three-point wind, so without being happy at half time, we were okay. We knew we hadn’t played well but we had the wind in the second half, and we knew we had to up our work rate”.
“Once we got our noses in front, I suppose we had a bit of momentum then. I think we scored the last three points, and they didn’t have any answers at that stage. They were a very stern test I have to be honest, a very good team.”
When you have a free-taker as good as Tiarnan O’Hare, you always have a chance. The accurate attacker, man of the match in back-to-back county finals and scorer of 0-10 on Saturday, had another superb day in front of the posts.
“He always does (catch the headlines). He was brilliant at the frees again at the weekend, which doesn’t come as a surprise to me. People can say what they want about frees, but you still have to put them over. He practises them religiously so when it comes to matchday, his confidence does be high.”
Carrickmacross pose a new challenge as the familiarity with the Monaghan champions has faded in recent years.
“A while back we would have played Carrickmacross a wee bit more regular, but the playing personnel seems to have changed quite a bit in the last two or three years. So not a team we’d be massively familiar with in the short term. A bit of the unknown again,” said Cunningham, who was also the assistant manager to the Armagh Intermediate Football winners Carrickcruppen.
Craobh Rua are back in the provincial showpiece for the first time since 2013 and 11players remain from that day, while two have been added to the management team. Cunningham himself knocked over a point in the decider from the half-forward line as they lost to Creggan, who went on to capture All-Ireland glory.
“We had a really good team in 2013, we just have a better team now. We’re better organised now as well, the structures behind us are a lot better which leaves us in a better place. It’s probably more the experience that will stand to us rather than hurt because I suppose it’s seven years.
“The hurt bit of it, I’m not saying it’s gone but we knew on the day we were beat by a better team. It’s not as if we left it behind or anything.”