AIB Ulster Club Hurling Championship semi-final preview – Slaughtneil v Dunloy
By Brendan McTaggart
Dunloy Captain James McKeague is as cool and calm a man you are ever likely to meet. Nothing phases the man, not even a late night, unexpected phone call from yours truly looking for an interview. All in his stride. It’s easy to see why he’s been made the captain of the Cuchullains. A leader both on and off the pitch.
The Dunloy captain finished the match with two brothers against Cushendall and the Cuchullains full back told us that although it was something special, he was especially delighted for other members of the Dunloy squad: “It’s brilliant to play and win with Kevin and Nicky and hurling is all that’s talked about in our house but we have a band of 30 brothers in our squad and winning with them makes it all worthwhile.
“It was a brilliant occasion but I’m delighted for the group of boys that we have within the squad that are in their early to mid-20’s. The likes of Nigel Elliott, Nicky (McKeague) and Phelim Duffin. Lads that have had their shares of knocks on the way to senior hurling and while they’ve been there. They probably wondered if it would ever come good for them at senior level, like the rest of us – we wondered if we’d ever win another one in our career and it’s those guys that I was especially delighted for.”
The county final went to plan as far as McKeague was concerned as he told us that despite their first half blip, they had the belief in their own ability to see the job through and bring the Volunteer Cup back to the village for the first time in eight years: “It was a great day and a great occasion for the team and the parish. For ourselves it’s very satisfying to say that we executed what we wanted to do. We probably played within ourselves in the first half but we came out in the second half and took the game to Cushendall and showed what we’re capable off.”
After the last number of years where the Cuchullains had failed to make any inroads in the Antrim championship, they finally got it right this year and they did so with an injection of youth from their recent minor successes. McKeague gave us an insight on how the new blood helped to freshen things up in the Cuchullains camp: “The group of younger players came up from the minors last year and it certainly energised the whole squad again. In the past couple of years, we underperformed when it mattered most but this year right from the word go, training has been different. There’s been a different atmosphere and the new blood in the squad this year has helped to maybe add the final piece to the jigsaw.
“The strength we have on the bench has helped all year and it’s something that has kept us going in training. We haven’t been able to rest on our laurels thinking that we’re guaranteed a starting place.”
McKeague is a ‘young veteran’ of this Dunloy team and one of the few who have experienced the Ulster championship before. It’s another step up in intensity and McKeague admitted that the Cuchullains go into the match as underdogs: “It’s a big challenge that lays ahead for us. Slaughtneil have shown in the last number of years what they’re capable off and against Loughgiel in last year’s Ulster final they blew them away in the first half.”
The Oakleaf champions have won the Derry crown for the last five years now and their improvement at provincial level has been apparent for all to see. They have been made as favourites and rightly so but McKeague told us that the Cuchullains are sticking with the tried and trusted formula that seen them breach an eight-year gap in county championships: “We’ve seen bits of them but we’ve just been concerning ourselves about us and what we’ll be bringing to the game. They’ll start as favourites with being reigning Ulster champions but I don’t read too much into favourite’s tags. Cushendall started as favourites in the county final and we paid no attention to that at all. All year we’ve been concentrating on what we bring to the 60 plus minutes of hurling and Sunday will be no different.”