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Neil McManus is a key man for the Cushendall hurlers. 
Neil McManus is a key man for the Cushendall hurlers. 

Cushendall wary of Ballycran challenge in Ulster Club Hurling Final

By Eoghan Tuohey

This Sunday, two famous hurling strongholds clash in the AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Final. Cushendall from the Antrim Glens will square up to Ballycran from the Ards Penninsula at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh at 3pm.

Ballycran stunned reigning Ulster champions Slaughtneil in the semi-final with a polished performance, emerging as deserved victors with a ten-point margin to spare.

Not surprisingly, Cushendall manager Eamon Gillan is cautious about the challenge the Down club will pose on Sunday.

“Well, excluding the last ten years, the Antrim champions would nearly have been guaranteed to win the Ulster, but that’s changed in the last ten years or so, with Derry teams and the Down teams and others coming to fruition, so it’s no longer a foregone conclusion,” said Gillan.

“We thought that with Slaughtneil winning the last two Ulster titles they would be the opposition in the final, but, to be fair to Ballycran, they turned them over and got not just a win, but a convincing win, and they’ve got the confidence now of beating the reigning Ulster champions, which will give them a huge lift”.

The Antrim championship is never an easy one to win, and Cushendall have had a tough campaign, including a replay against St. John’s, and a hard-fought county final win over Loughiel. Their manager believes these performances will stand to them as they begin the next phase of their season .

“St. John’s were a better side than everyone was expecting. People haven’t given them the credit that’s due to them,” said Gillan.

“And then Loughiel is always a tough game, and the fact that they had beaten, probably this year’s favourites for the championship, Dunloy, in the semi-final, put them on another pedestal. But, it’s all about performance on the day.

“If any team brings their best performance on the day, they’re going to be hard to beat, it’s as simple as that.”

The Ruairi Óg Cushendall team that contested the 2016 AIB All-Ireland Club SHC Final in Croke Park. 
The Ruairi Óg Cushendall team that contested the 2016 AIB All-Ireland Club SHC Final in Croke Park. 

This Cushendall side contested the 2016 AIB All-Ireland Club SHC Final but failed to get out of Antrim at the last two attempts. Gillan sees no reason why they shouldn’t dream of making it all the way to Croke Park again.

“We would be aiming that high yeah. But we can’t think of anything further than Sunday, Ballycran are going be strong, it’s going be a tough match,” said Gillan.

“I’m not sure whether they’re at full strength or not, we never know these things until the last day, we’ve a couple of niggling injuries, which we hope will be cleared up by the weekend, but there’s no guarantee of that, there’s a few boys will have to do a fitness test, and we’ll take it from there. Apart from that, we’re happy enough. I would not be expecting anything less than a tough game.”

The Antrim representatives have a strong squad, but as with all great sides, they have in their midst some iconic players and household names making up their spine. Neil McManus is one of their main scoring threats, while Aaron Graffin and the Burke brothers have also shown up very well so far.

“Neil’s a tremendous hurler,” said Gillan. "He’s well experienced, he’s been around the block a few times. But there’s other experienced lads too, Aaron Graffin, tremendous fella, great leader, but those pair of boys and the Burkes, those boys have been there and done it. Those are the leaders.”

The injured Eoghan Campbell has been playing on with a broken bone in his wrist, protected by a custom-made protector sourced from Pakistan. A critical cog in their side, they remain hopeful he will take the field on Sunday.

“Eoghan’s still carrying that same injury, albeit he’s had a little bit longer,” said Gillan. “He’s going to have something done with it further down the line, there’s still a broken bone in there, albeit we had a good coverage for it.

“We’re hopeful that he’ll play alright, but there’s no guarantee. He hasn’t been doing any hurling since the Antrim final, he’s just been doing a bit of running, he hasn’t been doing much hurling.”

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