By Niall Gartland
CUSHENDALL have the opportunity to edge their noses in front at the top of the all-time leaderboard when they take on Sleacht Néill in Saturday’s Ulster Senior Championship final at Páirc Esler in Newry.
As things stand both themselves and Antrim rivals Dunloy share the honour of topping the leaderboard with 11 provincial titles each, while relative late comers to the party Sleacht Néill are some way back with four titles.
Perhaps the more pertinent point, however, is that Sleacht Néill have won four of the last six titles. Cushendall aren’t doing too badly in that respect – they won the Four Seasons Cup 2015 and 2018 – but subsequently they had to wait a further five years before so much as winning the Antrim Senior Championship, the longest spell they’ve ever gone without doing so.
The Ruairí Ógs ended their drought – and it was a drought by their lofty standards – when they came up trumps against Loughgiel in mid-October and now they’ll be hoping they can reassert themselves as the foremost team in Ulster.
Manager Brian Delargy said: “The last time we were in the Ulster title was in 2018 and five years is a long enough time for us to be honest.
“It’s great to be involved, when you’re looking at other teams playing on the big days in the Ulster Championship it’s hard not to feel a bit of envy so it’s nice to be back and it’s a good occasion for the whole club.”
Sleacht Néill received a bye into the Ulster showdown whereas Cushendall were pitted against Down champs Portaferry in what turned out to be a hotly contested semi-final clash a fortnight ago.
And to say they diced with danger would be an understatement. They stood on the cusp of a surprise defeat but Neil McManus struck a late goal from a free that sent the game into extra-time. Cushendall didn’t look back as they dominated extra-time en route to recording a 4-28 to 3-19 victory, but they could still count themselves fortunate to emerge triumphant on the day.
So was it a bad performance, the type of showing that simply won’t do against Derry kingpins Sleacht Néill? Manager Delargy puts a fairly positive spin on it:
“We were definitely relieved at the end of the game. We were four points down heading into injury time and it wasn’t looking good for us. It was nice that the boys put in a better performance in extra-time and got us over the line.
“I wouldn’t say we underperformed, we worked seriously hard around the pitch and the stats show that, but we probably didn’t take our chances like we should.
“We’d far too many wides in the first half and went in level at half-time, and in the second half we conceded a few soft goals.
“We probably should have had the game won in normal time but at least we dug it out when the chips were down.”
The very fact they’ve already played in Ulster should in theory stand to Delargy’s side. Sleacht Néill, by contrast, have endured a mammoth wait since claiming their eleventh Derry Senior Championship title back in September.
Delargy commented: “We had five weeks to wait between the county final and our semi-final which was a long enough wait, and hopefully that’ll stand to us this weekend. We had to dig it out on a soft enough pitch, so we really had to work for it. It was a long enough five weeks and you can’t beat playing matches.”
One thing Cushendall certainly aren’t lacking in is experience. Ten of the players that fielded in their Ulster triumph over Ballycran back in 2018 started their recent semi-final victory over Portaferry.
Their main man that day was the vastly experienced Neil McManus, who scored 1-14 in total including that late equalising goal a fortnight ago. But the sense is that they’ll need a more rounded performance from across their scoring unit if they’re to get the better of Sleacht Néill.
Delargy said: “When you look into it, it is very clear we’re a very experienced team but we’re also adding one or two boys into the starting team every year and they’ve proven themselves well fit for it, and we’re adding more into the panel as well. That’s the evolution every team needs and I think we’ve shown signs of improvement every year. Some of the lads who have been here a long time are really stepping up as well so there’s a good blend there.”
If Cushendall get their hands on the cup, it’ll taste as sweet as any of their previous triumphs at this level. It’s easier said than done and Delargy recognises that Sleacht Néill will be itching to make amends for last year’s Ulster final defeat to Dunloy.
“They’re a very competitive bunch of players and made their breakthrough in 2016. They won their first Ulster and since then they’ve been the team to beat. I’d say they were hurting after last year and will be coming all guns blazing for us.
“But it’s great to be here and we’re determined to give it our best shot. There’s a great buzz in the town, there’s flags up the whole way. It’s a good feeling to be involved in the championship with Christmas just around the corner,”