By Shaun Casey
TWENTY-FOUR hours after captaining his country to a victory over Scotland in the hurlingshinty hybrid international game at Páirc Esler, Newry, Neil McManus was back in the same venue eyeing up his next opponent.
He attended the Down final between Portaferry and Ballycran, with his side Cushendall awaiting the winners.
“It was a super game of hurling,” noted McManus. “It was really free flowing but very, very physical, that certainly stood out and even though Portaferry won by four points, it was in the balance in the last couple of minutes. With time up there was one point in it and then Portaferry had a little spurt of three scores at the end.
“That was when Ballycran were pushing forward looking for the equaliser and that happens at times, but there was nothing between the teams. It was a really good game of hurling; I was actually delighted that I was there for it.
“Cushendall and Portaferry would know each other incredibly well because we’re playing in the same league so there’s not too much that the teams won’t know about each other anyway.
“There are no surprises and Portaferry obviously have a serious inside forward line and they were all on song in the Down final. Tom Coulter and Daithi Sands are very talented lads in the corners.
“Eoin Sands is very strong at 11 as well and Barry Trainor at five was outstanding and Caolan Taggart played in a sweeping role too, but they know as much about us as we do about them.”
Cushendall ended a five-year wait for championship glory in the Saffron County this season, and they have had a break of four weeks between then and this Ulster semi-final.
The Antrim Championship was a tough nut to crack, especially as it included the reigning Ulster champions and last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists Dunloy, but star man McManus helped Cushendall over the line.
“To win the championship, it’s always the aim at the start of the season and it had been five years since we won it and that’s a long enough wait for us,” said the Antrim hurling legend.
“It was a brilliant occasion and a brilliant game of hurling. It was just a huge event for the village, whenever you went back into Cushendall that night and saw what it meant to everybody.
“We saw a huge development in a young Ballycastle team, a huge development in a young Loughgiel team and obviously ourselves and Dunloy played out a super final last year.
“The Antrim Championship is never easy won and that’s a good thing because it means the standard of hurling in Antrim is always going to be of a certain level now that Antrim as a county team are back competing in Division One and in the Leinster Championship.
“I would say Antrim are a stable Division One team now and that’s great.
“We actually need more senior clubs competing at the highest level, and we need more of them in Belfast, that’s for sure.”