JOHNNY McINTOSH: Cushendall’s day, Cushendall’s year

FROM early on in the year it was evident there was a good vibe around Cushendall so it’s no major surprise to see them follow up their Antrim title with the provincial crown.

The Ruairi Ógs can be unpredictable in one sense, but coming from a neighbouring club like I do, you usually get a sense of what to expect from them in any given season.

In the winter months, you might see them out training more and you might hear what such and such players are doing, and it was clear from early on that they were going to give it a serious rattle this year. Then when John McKillop died, they were even more motivated to succeed and they’ve ended up with their first Ulster title in five years.

Another thing about Cushendall is that they have this great knack of bringing in one or two new players in any given season. It’s a bit different with Dunloy, they’ve a habit of bringing through seven or eight players almost as a lump.

Cushendall haven’t been particularly strong at underage level but they can bring through one or two good players per season and a few of their younger lads had exceptional games against Sleacht Néill. Added to that, a few of their older players probably recognise that they’re a lot closer to the end of their playing careers than the start so I’m sure that was another driving force this season given Loughgiel are coming strong and Dunloy will be back.

But for me, without wishing to take away from Cushendall, the big story from Sunday’s game was Sleacht Néill’s performance.

It’s not fair or accurate or the time to proclaim the demise of Sleacht Néill, but they certainly don’t look like the team of two or three years ago. I thought their hurling looked ropey at times, their striking wasn’t particularly sharp and some of their play looked disjointed.

They scored 1-6 in the first half and 1-4 in the second which isn’t going to win a hurling match, even at this time of year.

It looked like they were overthinking it a bit and some of their star players looked ring-rusty, but for me a lot of it comes back to the fact they hadn’t played a competitive game in 11 weeks.

Cushendall had the benefit of playing a semi-final clash against Portaferry, a game they were very fortunate to win, and I think if the roles had been reversed and Sleacht Néill had played in that semi-final clash instead, I think they would’ve won the Ulster final.

I know that sounds like a strange thing to say given Cushendall are deserving Ulster champions, but all the training in the world won’t replicate match-day conditions and Sleacht Néill really suffered from the lengthy gap. Indeed, even though Sleacht Néill were generally fairly poor, you could see them improve as the game wore on which is no surprise really.

As I’ve said before, I’m really not a fan of this split season and while it’s a great time for Cushendall, they now face an All-Ireland semi-final clash in the middle of December against O’Loughlin Gaels of Kilkenny and potentially an All-Ireland final, which would essentially ruin any chance of having a normal Christmas, it’s really not ideal.

It’s not a good time to play hurling, but if the GAA insist on sticking to this timetable going forward, I think counties are going to have to look at pushing back their county finals to avoid a repeat of Sleacht Néill having to wait nearly three months to play a game.

Next up for Cushendall is an All-Ireland semi-final against O’Loughlin Gaels on Sunday week. It’s definitely a help for Cushendall that it’s been scheduled for Navan as opposed to Croke Park like some suspected.

O’Loughlins are a good team with two of the best defenders in Ireland, Mikey Butler and Huw Lawlor.

You never know with Cushendall, on their day they could beat them, but to be honest looking down the line I can’t see anyone getting the better of Ballygunner.

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