Ballygunner too good for brave Slaughtneil
AIB All-Ireland club senior hurling championship semi-final
BALLYGUNNER (WATERFORD) 2-19 SLAUGHTNEIL (DERRY) 1-17
By Paul Keane at Parnell Park, Dublin
Billy O'Keeffe proved Ballygunner's saviour at Parnell Park with a 2-3 haul to help secure their AIB All-Ireland club senior hurling final place.
It was heartbreak for Derry outfit Slaughtneil who, as in early 2020 when they lost by the same five-point margin to Ballyhale Shamrocks, came up just short after a terrific display.
Michael McShane's Ulster champions trailed by seven points at the second water break at Parnell Park but twice reduced their arrears to just four in the fourth quarter.
They couldn't push on for a famous win though and it's eight-in-a-row Waterford champions Ballygunner who will take on Ballyhale or St Thomas' in the All-Ireland decider on the weekend of February 12/13.
Corner-forward O'Keeffe struck his two goals at the beginning of each half while Waterford star Dessie Hutchinson helped clinch the landmark win with back to back points late on, punching the air in delight after the second of those.
Darragh O'Sullivan's Ballygunner, who didn't make a single substitution throughout, approached the encounter as almost unbackable favourites and hinted initially that they may win this one with plenty to spare.
With just four minutes on the clock they led by 1-2 to 0-0 and were pulling the Slaughtneil defence asunder at times with their slick hurling and perfectly timed passes.
Slaughtneil deployed Gerald Bradley as their seventh defender - Ballygunner responded by leaving joint-captain Philip Mahony in a free role at the other end - though the south-Derry men were still powerless to prevent Ballygunner racking up that early lead.
Conor Sheahan and Kevin Mahony sniped points before O'Keeffe was picked out by a clever Peter Hogan pass on the left of goals and struck to the net.
It seemed all so easy for Ballygunner who put together an outrageous attacking move in the sixth minute that almost resulted in one of the goals of the championship.
Hutchinson began it with a pass to Kevin Mahony who found Hogan with a clever pass down into the ground that bounced up kindly. Hutchinson had continued a looping run back towards goal and was picked out by Hogan but his eye-catching volley was saved by Slaughtneil 'keeper Oisin O'Doherty.
The underdogs could have been overawed by such expansive and free-flowing play but dug in and responded impressively with points from Cormac O'Doherty, the excellent Brendan Rodgers and Brian Cassidy.
Sweeper Bradley soon emerged as an influential player for Slaughtneil and helped tighten things up at the back, fetching one great ball from the air and beginning a move that ended with Jerome McGuigan scoring.
Rodgers had an interesting head to head with Ballygunner full-back and joint-captain Barry Coughlan.
Dual star Rodgers edged that contest in the first-half and scored two points while Se McGuigan got in on the scoring act too, leaving Slaughtneil trailing by just 0-9 to 1-8 at half-time.
Ballygunner began the second-half in similar fashion, with a Conor Sheahan point and an O'Keeffe goal, Kevin Mahony this time supplying the pass for the three-pointer, and they now led 2-9 to 0-9.
Pauric Mahony was errant on the frees though, striking three in a row wide at one stage, and it prevented Ballygunner from forging further ahead.
As it was, they led 2-13 to 0-12 at the second water break but were on top and dominant from Slaughtneil's puck-outs so should have capitalised more than they did.
It almost came back to haunt them too as Slaughtneil fought back bravely with four points in a row immediately after the water break, two from the excellent Rodgers, one from Brian Cassidy and one from O'Doherty.
They needed a goal, however, and it didn't arrive until stoppage time when it was ultimately too late as Shane McGuigan, fed by sub Jack Cassidy, struck home from the left of goals. It left four between the teams again but the Gunners held on with back to back Hutchinson points late on proving hugely important.
Ballygunner scorers: Billy O'Keeffe 2-3 (0-1f), Dessie Hutchinson 0-4, Kevin Mahony 0-4, Peter Hogan 0-3, Pauric Mahony 0-2 (0-2f), Conor Sheahan 0-2, Mikey Mahoney 0-1.
Slaughtneil scorers: Cormac O'Doherty 0-7 (0-6f), Brendan Rodgers 0-4, Shane McGuigan 1-0, Brian Cassidy 0-3, Jerome McGuigan 0-2, Se McGuigan 0-1.
BALLYGUNNER: Stephen O'Keeffe; Ian Kenny, Barry Coughlan, Tadhg Foley; Shane O'Sullivan, Philip Mahony, Ronan Power; Conor Sheahan, Paddy Leavey; Pauric Mahony, Mikey Mahony, Peter Hogan; Dessie Hutchinson, Kevin Mahony, Billy O'Keeffe. Subs: None
SLAUGHTNEIL: Oisin O'Doherty; Karl McKaigue, Sean Cassidy, Paul McNeill; Gerald Bradley; Meehaul McGrath, Conor McAllister, Shane McGuigan; Cormac O'Doherty, Christopher McKaigue; Se McGuigan, Jerome McGuigan; Mark McGuigan, Brendan Rodgers, Brian Cassidy. Subs: Peadar Kearney for Sean Cassidy 50, Jack Cassidy for Mark McGuigan 53.
Referee: Sean Stack (Dublin).