Cúchullain's Dunloy 0-08 Loughgiel Shamrocks 0-14
In a second half where they only scored two points, the 2018 champions Dunloy Cúchullain's were dethroned by a Loughgiel Shamrocks side who refused to let them settle and pulled away in the second half of what was a poor game in the Bath Shack Antrim SHC in Ballycastle.
There were a few late selection decisions on both sides, youngster Aaron Crawford making his first championship start at corner back, while at half back the management opted for Ronan Molloy rather than the more experienced Paudie Shivers. There was a big call too in the Loughgiel side, with Shaun McGrath preferred to Shay Casey at corner forward.
Before Darren McKeown could even throw the ball in, there were indicators that this game was going to live up to its billing, with both sides getting involved in a skirmish over a disputed dug out. McKeown eventually had to toss a coin, which finished Dunloy's way and they took their place in front of the Loughgiel fans.
The pre-match shenanigans seemed to affect the reigning champions more than the men in red, and after a tentative opening few minutes, James McNaughton gave the Shamrocks the lead with his first of eight frees, before Dunloy forced a free of their own in midfield.
Quick thinking from Paul Shields found half-back Kevin Molloy on the run and he was upended by a Loughgiel defender, allowing Shields to slot a much easier free than his original position to level the match at 0-01 apiece.
Veteran Joey Scullion then restored the Loughgiel lead, racing out in front of Ronan Molloy to point on the run before Paul Shields left a very late hurl on Eddie McCloskey right in front of the dugouts, both real and imagined. Referee McKeown brandished a yellow card, with the baying red masses on the sideline calling for a colour to match their regalia.
Mark McFadden floated over a lovely score to double his side's lead but to the frustration of the gathered crowd, it was only the fourth score in twelve minutes of a match that had promised so much more.
James McNaughton then extended the lead to three, his free coming after Connor McKinley had lost possession on the way out of his defence and fouled the Loughgiel hitman. Nigel Elliott, operating at midfield for the afternoon, then made his first mark on the game, bursting through the middle with a trademark run and point to reduce the gap to two.
The experienced Eddie McCloskey then shot over a score from distance for the Shamrocks before Paul Shields responded with a free as the first half entered its final ten minutes.
The neat passing game that lit up last year's championship was non-existent in the opening twenty minutes for Dunloy as their local rivals made things difficult, showing great workrate to close down space and not allow the Cúchullain's players any time to pick out a man.
Loughgiel were playing on the edge and a late hit on Chrissy Brogan earned Damon McMullan his side's first yellow card of the day, while Aaron Crawford appeared to be welcomed to Senior Championship on a number of occasions, such was the Loughgiel physicality.
Dunloy replied with a controlled phsyicality of their own, Paul Shields breaking a tackle to fire over the bar, before plucking a stick pass from the air and lashing it between the posts to level the scoreline, urging on his team-mates in the process.
A James McNaughton free restored the Loughgiel advantage, but Shields again led by example, throwing three men out of his way and driving at the heart of the Shamrocks defence to send over another equaliser.
The first half came to a close fittingly. In a game with numerous untidy rucks and punctuated play, Donal McKinley eventually emerged from one with the sliotar in hand and fired Loughgiel back into the lead on the stroke of half time.
Dunloy emerged brightly in the second half, Shields finding Kevin Molloy on the run again and this time the half-back made no mistake to level the match in the opening minutes.
A wild pull earned Phelim Duffin a yellow card and allowed McNaughton to nudge his side back in front from the placed ball, showing a deadly accuracy in very difficult, breezy conditions. McNaughton then continued his unblemished record seconds later, his low effort having to be tipped over the bar by an alert Ryan Elliott after a foul on Daniel McCloskey 20 yards out.
Dunloy's young guns in the forward line were being systematically decommissioned as Loughgiel ruthlessly cut off their supply, but persistence from Ronan Molloy eventually allowed him to slot a pass into the hand of Keelan Molloy, who fired over off the right flank to close the gap to one. In the 42nd minute, it was to be the last Cúchullain score of the afternoon.
A series of stoppages then disrupted the flow of the match and didn't allow any sort of momentum to develop. The monotony was broken by the assured James McNaughton, who pointed a 65 after a superb Phelim Duffin block denied Eddie McCloskey his second point of the day.
Gregory O'Kane attempted to freshen up the forward line, withdrawing Eoin O'Neill for Paudie Shivers and pushing Nigel Elliott up, as well as introducing Seaan Elliott and Gabriel McTaggart, but it was to little avail as the Shamrocks continued to shut down the supply line.
It was Loughgiel substitute Shay Casey who registered the next score seconds after his introduction, collecting the ball wide and rounding Aaron Crawford to raise a white flag as the game entered the final five minutes with the 2016 champions leading by three.
Dunloy needed a major to rescue them and when the chance came it fell to Conal Cunning, cutting across the face of goal and flashing an effort towards DD Quinn, who managed to get his hurl to the ball and deflect it out of the danger zone.
The Shamrocks cleared and with Dunloy committed, Joey Scullion was left in acres of space on the left flank as he split the posts for the insurance point that was greeted with a roar of glee and chanting among the Loughgiel support, before a huge James McNaughton free raised the decibels on the sideline once more.
Dunloy's resolve began to wilt and they were reduced to fourteen men moments later, when Nicky McKeague was issued a red card for a strike on Tiarnan Coyle. McNaughton slotted his eighth and final free of the afternoon and as the rain began to sheet down in Ballycastle, Darren McKeown blew the final whistle.
A disappointing encounter for the neutral, but Loughgiel will not care one jot as they dug out the victory by closing down the supply to Dunloy's talented forward unit. They'll now have to wait two weeks to find out their opponents for the final, with the St John's v Cushendall replay fixed for the weekend of October 13th.
Cúchullain's Dunloy: Ryan Elliott, Phelim Duffin, James McKeague, Aaron Crawford, Ronan Molloy, Connor McKinley, Kevin Molloy (0-01), Ciaran Elliott, Nigel Elliott (0-01), Nicky McKeague, Keelan Molloy (0-01), Paul Shiels (0-03, 0-02f), Eoin O'Neill, Chrissy Brogan, Conal Cunning.
Loughgiel Shamrocks: DD Quinn, Paul Gillan, Niall McGarry, Ronan McCloskey, Tony McCloskey, Damon McMullan, Odhran McFadden, Mark McFadden (0-01), Tiarnan Coyle, Joey Scullion (0-02), James McNaughton (0-08f), Donal McKinley (0-01), Daniel McCloskey, Eddie McCloskey (0-01), Shaun McGrath.
Referee: Darren McKeown (Naomh Gall)