Ballygunner (Waterford) 2-19 Slaughtneil (Derry) 1-17
With six minutes on the clock at Parnell Park and Ballygunner leading by 1-2 to no score, Dessie Hutchinson attempted to finish off a slick passing move with a champagne finish, a first time volley which we presumed would ripple the Slaughtneil net.
The Waterford star's strike wasn't quite flush but while the Slaughtneil goalkeeper saved and cleared his lines, the writing appeared to be on the wall for the raging underdogs.
It turned out that the two teams would strike exactly 1-17 apiece from there on, Slaughtneil doubling down and producing the sort of hurling that had brilliant Ballyhale Shamrocks and Na Piarsaigh teams similarly backed up and on the ropes in All-Ireland semi-finals in 2018 and 2020.
Billy O’Keeffe’s 2-3 haul, his two goals coming in the early moments of each half, ultimately proved decisive for Ballygunner though the chances are that instead of champagne, their supporters required something more like a stiff whiskey to calm their nerves afterwards.
This was a game that Ballygunner were supposed to win comfortably but after mauling Ballyea and Kilmallock in Munster, they were fortunate enough to have had five points to spare in the end.
Ballygunner resorted to the dark arts at times too, Shane O'Sullivan and Pauric Mahony both receiving yellow cards for cynical fouls in the dying minutes that prevented Slaughtneil from conjuring a goal.
Michael McShane’s side did eventually raise a green flag but Shane McGuigan’s strike three minutes into stoppage time came just too late to rescue a result.
Aside from O'Keeffe, Kevin Mahony had a strong game in attack, scoring four points from play and making an entirely unselfish decision to lay the ball off to O'Keeffe for Ballygunner's second goal early in the second-half when most would have shot themselves.
It proved to be a crucial score because while the favourites were on top in the third quarter, building up a seven-point lead by the water break, they struck a series of wides which breathed fresh life into Slaughtneil’s challenge.
Pauric Mahony drilled three wides in a row and told the group at the second water break that he was handing the duties over to O’Keeffe.
Ballygunner’s other marquee forward, Hutchinson, had his moments and punched the air in delight after scoring back to back points in the 59th and 60th minutes, sensing a landmark win was close.
But Hutchinson had a gripping head to head with Paul McNeill and went long stretches without troubling Slaughtneil.
At the other end, Brendan Rogers locked horns with Ballygunner full-back Barry Coughlan and edged that duel, scoring 0-4.
It was Rodgers that hauled his team back after that early speed wobble with two great scores and by half-time they only trailed 0-9 to 1-8, O'Keeffe's first goal after four minutes following a pass from Peter Hogan separating the teams.
Uncannily, the second-half began with a Conor Sheahan Ballygunner point after 15 seconds, just like the first-half, and then O'Keeffe netted, just like he had at the start of the first-half too.
Despite thundering wide after wide, Ballygunner still led 2-13 to 0-12 at the three-quarter mark and it was a cushion they required as Slaughtneil threw everything they had at them in the closing minutes, getting it back to a four-point game on a couple of occasions.
“We knew ourselves we were able to do that, maybe people on the outside didn’t,” said Hutchinson of Ballygunner’s gritty performance. “Maybe we’re starting to prove a few people wrong.”
Slaughtneil manager McShane cut a disconsolate figure afterwards.
“We went 1-2 down before we struck a ball in the first-half and conceded 1-1 at the start of the second-half,” said McShane. “It’s inexplicable. I’m not going to point any fingers at anybody but Ballygunner were out of the blocks very quick and that 2-3 was the difference in the end.”
Ballygunner: S O'Keeffe; I Kenny, B Coughlan, T Foley; S O'Sullivan, Philip Mahony, R Power; C Sheahan (0-2), P Leavey; Pauric Mahony (0-2, 2f), M Mahony (0-1), P Hogan (0-3); D Hutchinson (0-4), K Mahony (0-4), B O'Keeffe (2-3, 0-1f). Subs: None.
Slaughtneil: O O'Doherty; K McKaigue, S Cassidy, P McNeill; G Bradley; M McGrath, C McAllister, Shane McGuigan (1-0); C O'Doherty (0-7, 6f), C McKaigue; Se McGuigan (0-1), J McGuigan (0-2); M McGuigan, B Rodgers (0-4), B Cassidy (0-3). Subs: P Kearney for S Cassidy (50 mins), J Cassidy for M McGuigan (53 mins).
Referee: S Stack (Dublin).