One Ruairi Og legend is experiencing the New Firm from the sideline for the first time on Sunday and he tells us all bout the Cushendall and Loughgiel rivaly….
By Brendan McTaggart
We all get nervous when we watch our teams before finals. It’s all part of the attraction with the GAA. Our love and passion for the game and the draw of following your team to the ends of the earth but for one Ruairi Og man, Sunday will be different.
Karl ‘Searles’ McKeegan. A man who played in the Cushendall shirt for a generation and has seven championship winning medals somewhere locked away at his home for safe keeping, his first coming on his 18th birthday with a win over Ballycastle. It’s fair to say he’s had a more than decent career that has spanned for a year short of a quarter of a century. On Sunday though, he gets to taste a championship final for the first time as a fan.
A veteran of the Cushendall’s encounters with the Shamrocks, McKeegan told us this year has taken some getting used to: “It’s been tough, I’ll not lie but I felt that I needed to take a clean break from the game to be honest. I had been involved in a player coach role for the last couple of years but with my working commitments, that was getting tougher.
“I’m trying to enjoy going to matches as much as I can but I’ve one eye on next year and hope to be involved in some capacity next year.”
“The will to win.” The unsurprising first thought that came to Searles mind when asked about Loughgiel. He continued: “It’s a massive rivalry. Probably the biggest I was involved in and the biggest there is at the minute. I kind of missed the rivalry between Dunloy and Cushendall in the early 90’s but the matches against Loughgiel always got you going.”
Sunday represents the eighth final between the ‘New Firm’ and McKeegan cast his memory back to those he’ll never forget and the one he wants to: “The ’05 final is the one that sticks out the most in my head but maybe not for the right reasons. I was sent off in the semi-final against Dunloy but the club appealed and I was free to play and for that reason it’s probably the match I enjoyed the most.
“The ’06 final will always be that bit special, we were looking down and out and half time seven or eight points down but to go on and win by eight was a great feeling.
“Getting beat in the 2010 final was hard to take. We were winning for more or less the whole match up until the end but fair play to them. They won that day and really did push on from there.”
2005 was the Ruairi’s second final in six years. Since, they’ve been in every final but two (2007 and 2012). It was the start of something special in Cushendall and McKeegan sees similarities between the class of ’05 and the current Ruairi Og squad: “There’s a good mix in the squad at the minute as there tends to be with Cushendall. That experience is important with the likes of Sean Delargy, Natty, Neil and Graffin but it’s good to have the younger players about as well. There’s four or five boys there that haven’t looked out of place in the senior team this year.
“I didn’t get to see some of the early matches of the season and I was told about this young lad Niall McCormick so I made a point of getting to the next game to see him. He’s a great prospect and young Fred McCurry as well.
“I played a couple of matches this year in the reserves to pull them out when they were getting it tight for numbers and when you see those young boys up close, their movement, pace, running with the ball. It’s all there.
“I think that mix helped us back in 2005 with the likes of Graffin, Neil, Paddy McGill and Shane McNaughton coming into the team. It gave everybody a boost and a lot of the older lads found new levels, not wanting to lose their place to these young boys!
“I was lucky enough that I was reasonably fit throughout my career and didn’t have too many big injuries. There’s always room for that experience in a squad, even if it’s to have a few words in the young lads ears in the changing room before going out. It can give them a boost or relax them. It’s invaluable.”
Being a fan and not part of the playing or management squad for the first time in 24 years has been a learning experience for the Harry’s Restaurant manager: “I never got nervous playing. I always enjoyed playing in the big games. The bigger, the better. To me there was no better feeling playing in front of big crowds whether it be at home or in Croke Park but the butterflies are setting in and as the week goes on it’s only going to get worse. Working where I do people will be coming in and talking about the match so I’d definitely prefer to be playing that’s for sure.
“The first match against St Johns was the first game of championship hurling I watched involving Cushendall from the side line in 24 years. I just wanted to get involved. The lads weren’t great that day and I felt like running on and giving them a shake!
“The second game we showed in the first 15 minutes the team that we can be but we took our foot off the pedal and let St Johns back into the game. We won’t get away with doing that on Sunday but everyone was writing off St Johns before both games. That was crazy.”
McCambridge was complimentary of the Ruairi Og management set-up this year when he added: “Looking from the outside in this year, it’s great to see the lads have been given a bit more freedom. After the semi-final they went out and had a couple of pints and people were saying they shouldn’t be doing that but I thought it was brilliant. It’s still an amateur sport at the end of the day and these boys are out training three or four nights a week. They need that release and I thought it was refreshing.
“They’ve given everybody a good shout all year. Young Ed McQuillan is another who’s caught the eye this year and he might not have had much time in the championship but he’s got a big future in front of him as well.
“Fergus McCambridge is another guy who’s came on leaps and bounds this year. He’s moulding into his da. That old school type of player who’s tough as old boots. He’s strong but has a natural eye for a score as well.”
Searles give his prediction for Sunday when he concluded: “There won’t be much in it. Off course I’m backing us. I just think our ability to create goal chances will be the difference.”
Karl McKeegan celebrates one of the high points of his long career, scoring a goal in the All Ireland semi-final win over Sarsfields of Galway in 2016. Pic by John McIlwaine