By Liam Tunney @Unitpdates
Na Magha manager Ciaran Davison winces at the mention of last season’s Ulster JHC Final loss and is scathing in his self-analysis.
“I suppose the temptation was to go man-to-man but I was a bit more cautious on the day and I think I maybe got it wrong.”
The Ballyarnett side will be looking to put the disappointment of losing out in no less than three Ulster JHC Finals in recent years behind them this weekend as they come up against Robert Emmet’s Cushendun, who, after finally getting over the line in Antrim, are entering the competition for the first time.
Both sides will come into this game with added motivation, having lost members of their club during the season. In July, the Na Magha community tragically lost 19-year-old Aodhán O’Donnell, a young star for both club and county.
With O’Donnell a playing member for the Derry men, his loss was keenly felt among his team-mates, who honoured his memory by donning commemorative jerseys in the run-up to their Derry championship opener against Michael Davitt’s Swatragh, a tough occasion according to their manager.
“An emotional day,” remembers the Ballycastle native, “we had his hurl and his helmet in with us in the huddle and I think the boys got a wee bit carried away with the emotion of it all.”
Davison laments a slow start in that particular game and admits that the form of some of the younger lads who were close to Aodhán understandably took a hit in the weeks that followed his passing as the club came to terms with the loss.
“You could see the form dip a bit, a few boys who would have been close to him were definitely affected.”
Cushendun’s own season was also touched by tragedy, losing club stalwart John McCaughan back in June.
McCaughan was part of the Emmet’s team who took on Cúchullain’s Dunloy in the 2000 Antrim SHC Final and Rory McQuillan, a team-mate on that occasion, paid a poignant tribute to John, dedicating the victory to him in an online post in the hours following the game.
Rory McQuillan celebtates his goal in the Antrim final win over Cushendun. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine
Manager Chris Dornan is keen to point out that although the desire to win for John was there, it was more of a quiet determination.
“It was always there in the background, there wasn’t a point where anyone stood up and said ‘let’s do it for John’ or anything.”
“He’s a big loss to the club,” continues Dornan, “everyone knew John and a lot of the boys who are in their late 20s or early 30s would have hurled along with him down the years.”
The Cushendall native stresses that the league was the priority for his side, and finishing in the top 6 was the only target they had in mind at the beginning of the year.
“We didn’t even start thinking about the Antrim championship until about July. Our priority was the league, we didn’t want to be facing a relegation battle going into championship and the Rasharkin game was a turning point really.”
Dornan refers to a league encounter at Dreen where his side found themselves trailing in the last five minutes, before hitting five unanswered points to win by four in a stirring finale to clinch a top six spot.
“After that we got the physical trainer back in again and started to build towards championship, we had a lot of outside men come in to freshen up the voices, Dinny Cahill was in to take a session and the boys really responded.”
Na Magha players in a huddle before the Swatragh game – Pic by Liam Tunney
Na Magha also targeted promotion from the Antrim Division 4 league as a priority at the beginning of the year, with its importance enhanced by the strong underage set up yielding dividends in Ballyarnett.
“We have a panel of about 30 boys at U14 level coming through to U16, boys that wouldn’t look out of place in any county, some lovely wristy hurlers,” enthuses Davison, “but there were only a few real challenges in that league and we needed to get into Division 3 to give those young lads something to look forward to.”
Although paling in comparison, they have both had their fair share of on-field heartache too.
Last year’s final was particularly galling for the Derry men, losing by only three points to an excellent Setanta team, boasting the likes of Declan Coulter, Danny Cullen and Kevin Campbell among their ranks. Despite the disappointment, Davison remembers the game for its positive effect on his young team.
“You had a massive crowd from the club up to support us on the day, and there were chants and everything from the sideline. It was probably the first time any of the younger players had experienced that kind of support and it definitely gave them a lift.”
“That final was great experience but we’re concentrating on the weekend and the task in hand.”
Na Magha enter this season’s competition with their county championship still ongoing, Eoghan Rua’s big ball exploits delaying the replay of the drawn Derry JHC final a fortnight ago, and their manager extolled the virtues of their midweek tussle with Antrim Division 4 winners Bredagh.
“The Bredagh game just came at the right time” suggests Davison, who has been with the club for over eight years.
“I felt we were a wee bit flat in the Swatragh game and then in the first half against Coleraine, but we lifted it in the second half and got the draw, and then the Bredagh game was played at championship pace, eyeballs everywhere, and it was great preparation for the weekend.”
Having lost five of the last nine Antrim finals, there was delight and an understandable amount of relief for Chris Dornan’s charges at finally being crowned champions, hitting an impressive 1-23 in a windswept Ballycastle to see off Shane O’Neill’s Glenarm.
“We were pleased with our performance in the final, some of the scores were phenomenal,” beams Dornan, “I was saying to the boys I couldn’t believe some of the scores they were getting with that wind.”
Having worked with Emmet’s for three years, Dornan has focused on instilling a style of play that suited his youthful side and the fruits of his labour were clear in the final, as David Kilgore and James Morgan found each other repeatedly with short, crisp stick passes.
“I took a look at the lads we had coming through and knew they had the talent and the skill to play that short passing game and after working at it, It’s great to see the boys have bought into it an executed it.”
David Kilgore had a fine game in the final, with Conlaoth McNeill, Pierce Bannon and Conor McHugh also performing strongly. The Cushendun forward unit delivered a superb display in testing conditions, their total actually exceeding the combined score from both Senior sides in the Semi-Final that followed their game. They were however relatively untested defensively as Glenarm struggled to make headway with what little possession they could muster.
This could be a worry as their opponents carry a forward threat of their own. In Deaglán Foley they not only have an unerring free-taker, but a superb all-round forward who would not be out of place on many senior teams in either county. Alan Grant links up well with his midfielders and has the vision to unlock defences, while at centre-back the solid Brendan Quigley marshals the defence with style and confidence.
When asked about Na Magha, Cushendun manager Dornan cast his mind back to their meetings in the 2017 Antrim Hurling League, when both teams played in the chaotic Division 3-4 hybrid.
“We would have played them last year in the league and I think we beat them by a point up at their pitch. I wouldn’t say their team are alien to us but we wouldn’t be overly familiar either.”
Cushendun come into this game in bonus territory and relieved of the pressure of expectation and the burden of the ‘nearly-men’ tag, they may be confident of booking a Semi-Final place. Na Magha though have been gearing towards this competition all year, given the ineligibility of Eoghan Rua, and their experience at this level may be an advantage.
They will however need to be prepared for Emmet’s strength in depth. In the final they were able to call on the experience of Rory McQuillan, who hit 1-02 in his cameo role in the dying moments of the game.
With both sides quietly determined to honour their former colleagues, the hunger, desire and passion on show will be a testament to two men who loved the game, whatever the result on the day.