Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final preview
Loughgiel vs Cushendall is a rivalry that will never grow old and on Sunday they face each other for the right to be crowned Antrim champions. But for one Shamrock in particular, he’ll be in unfamiliar territory…
By Brendan McTaggart
Sunday will represent the Shamrocks 11th final since 2003 and their eighth final against the Ruairi’s. These two teams have held a monopoly over the Volunteer Cup in recent times with 2001 the last time there was a final without either. An incredible stat and one that reflects the landscape of hurling in Antrim during recent times.
2001 was also the year one current member of the Loughgiel squad first joined the senior ranks: “I was first in the panel in 2001 as a sub goalkeeper but my first full playing year was 2002, we were beaten by Ballycastle in a replay in Glenravel that year.” Barney McAuley. Defender, midfielder, forward and as I found out, a man with an incredible memory. The Shamrock’s very own Mr Versatile but they can’t call upon his services for Sunday.
June 23rd of this year in the Liam McGarry Cup, Barney’s season was ended against Thurles Sarsfields on Fr Healy Park. A ruptured Achilles tendon has had McAuley side lined with an injury that could be career defining. Not for Barney. A love for the game an unbridled passion for his club and McAuley is focussed on dawning the Shamrocks shirt once again: “When I’m asked I just say I’m ruling nothing out. I’m not saying no and I’m not saying aye.” At the age of 35 he’d be forgiven for hanging up the hurl but you get the feeling it won’t be long until McAuley has the hurl in his hand while wearing a Loughgiel shirt once again. “I’m starting to walk a bit without a limp and crutches. It’s a slow process but it’s just one of those injuries that takes time to heal.”
Having played in all seven of the recent finals between the Shamrocks and Cushendall, there are few better placed than Barney to have his say on the two sides. He’s been there, done that and wore the shirt for the Shamrocks and when it comes to matches against the Ruairi’s, Barney told us: “It’s always a tough, tough battle between us and them through the years. Out of them seven finals, I think there was nothing more than a goal in five of them. In 2008 I think it was, we were winning at half time before they beat us by seven or eight points but we beat them well in 2013.
“That’s nearly been the exception to the rule though. Even in the league matches through the years there’s never more than a point or two between the sides.”
Tears of sorrow, tears of joy. Barney McAuley fights back the tears after yet another final defeat in 2005 and then sheds tears of joy after the famine ended in 2010
Being part of the team that lost in six finals, by his own admission was an incredibly tough period during his career. McAuley and the Shamrocks made the breakthrough in 2010, beating Cushendall for the first time in the clubs history in the final of the Antrim championship. Eddie McCloskey’s early goal proving to be the decisive score between the sides as the Shamrocks win 1-9 to 0-11. It was two seasons after that McAuley and his team mates would reach the pinnacle and take the ‘Big Yin’ to north Antrim but Barney told us he wouldn’t swap his 2010 winners medal for anything: “The 2010 final is the match I could tell you about from start to finish and every poc of the ball. Getting over the line and finally having won was such a huge relief after those six finals. It’s the one medal and memory I would never swap and that includes the All-Ireland.
“The pressure that comes from getting to a final and not getting over the line was incredible. To finally get that monkey off our back and to win our first championship in 21 years was sheer relief.
“It was a hurdle we struggled with but once we got that first one, we almost freed up and allowed us to push on from there. We had a team that was coming good at the right time as well, an experience group and youth coming through. It just sort of clicked at the right time.”
The Shamrock’s were guided to the club All-Ireland by the late, great Jim Nelson. While speaking about the rivalry between Sunday’s two finalists, McAuley too spoke of ‘Wee Jim’: “He used to say a team’s only as good as its tools. The work was put in.
“Jim was an amazing man and coach. You could talk to Jim about anything and everything but especially hurling. He always had time for you.”
Sunday will be the first time in his memory that he’ll watch his beloved Loughgiel play in the hurling final from the side lines. Barney has put 16 years of blood sweat and tears into achieving what he has in a Loughgiel shirt and I have no doubt he will hurl every second of the match with his team mates but he admitted that sitting on the side line hasn’t been easy: “It hasn’t been easy but I’ve been lucky that I’m still part of the squad. It’s just one of those things that you have to get on with. The team’s always bigger than any one person and if me standing on the side line means we’ll win then I’m prepared to do that.”
On Sunday’s final itself, McAuley told us to prepare for another close encounter: “It will be another tough physical game defined by small margins. These two teams know each other inside out and it could come down to whoever wants it most on the day.”