AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship
Dunloy vs Sleacht Néill
Sunday November 10 @ 3pm in Newry
Referee: Aidan Ferguson (Fermanagh)
Sleacht Néill – Mickey McShane
Now in his fifth year in charge of the Derry kingpins, Ballycastle native Mickey McShane has turned Sleacht Néill from contenders in Ulster to the team who everyone has to beat. They’ve met any challenge put in their way and raised the bar yet for McShane, it’s all about continual improvement.
Having won yet another Derry crown, McShane told us it’s not difficult to keep his players focussed: “It’s not difficult at all. Before the championship started we knew we would have one tough game against Kevin Lynch’s, whenever that might have been, it transpired that match was in the final. That’s no disrespect to Lavey who we beat in the semi-final.
“We had the help of going for seven in a row. That had helped to maintain focus. It’s the first time that had been done in Derry but we had to be at our best to get past the challenge of the Lynch’s.”
Like Dunloy, the Sleacht Néill men had a four week break before their semi-final meeting with Armagh side, Middleton: “Sleacht Néill were still involved in the football championship after the hurling final so they had that but we’ve had more time than we ever had in previous years to get ready for the Ulster championship. After they were put out of the football, we gave them an extra few days off to recover and but for one challenge match against Jordanstown where we gave everyone a run out, it was all training for three weeks.”
McShane continued: “We didn’t play at the top of our game but we never really had to. We were competent in what we were doing without ever hitting close to top gear.
“I think defensively we have to be pleased with our game. To concede just one point from play in an Ulster club game is very pleasing.
“It was a stop-start game without much flow for whatever reason but I’ve said it before, we needed that match. We needed that under our belts and it will stand by us for Sunday.
“I maybe came across as being more disappointed than I actually was after that game. At the end of the day we’re back in an Ulster final, playing on the biggest day in the calendar in club hurling again.”
All attention since the county finals has been the potential of a replay from two years ago when Sleacht Néill brought Dunloy back down to earth. McShane has fond memories of that encounter but less so from their semi-final defeat to Ballycran last year: “Two years ago will have no bearing on Sunday’s game. From what I can remember, we took a while to get started but once we went through the gears, we dominated them.
“Last year there was underlying issues. I don’t want to take anything away from Ballycran who were excellent on the day but our lads looked like they had hit a brick wall. They needed that break and it’s added to the development of these young lads as well.”
Sleacht Néill are a seasoned team in the Ulster championship and two years ago they showed they’re experience, outmuscling the youthful Cuchullains in Owenbeg. Dunloy have made strides in their strength and conditioning but McShane says his squad have been working hard too: “I’ve heard a lot about how the Dunloy lads have been doing a lot on their strength and conditioning since that match two years ago. That’s fair enough but our boys have hardly been sitting on their hands as well. I would say this is the strongest position we’ve ever been in coming into an Ulster final.
“This group of players would be of a similar age profile to the Dunloy squad but the experience they have of these occasions is massive.
The Sleacht Néill manager finished by adding his side aren’t feeling the weight of pressure coming into Sunday’s final: “The pressure is on Dunloy. They won the Antrim championship in 2017 and I think I’, right in saying we were the first team to beat them in the Ulster championship. They won’t want to be the first Dunloy team to be beaten twice in Ulster or the first to lose an Ulster final.
“We’re massively looking forward to this. It’s the biggest day in the Ulster club calendar and a chance to regain our title. To win a third Ulster title in four years. The boys are hugely looking forward to it.”
Dunloy – Gregory O’Kane
Antrim champions Dunloy are in their 11th Ulster final on Sunday but their first in 10 years. A sign of what has been and what the Cuchullains hope is to come. After their exploits in claiming the Antrim championship, the Cuchullains had a four week break to deal with before their semi-final against Ballycran but as manager Gregory O’Kane told us, they welcomed the break after the rigours of the Antrim championship: “The four week break was nice. It was a welcome break after a tough and difficult Antrim championship. It’s a tough championship to win, you don’t get anything easy against the Loughgiel’s. Cushendall’s, St John’s and Rossa’s. It was good to have that break where we could regroup and re-energise, get ready for another big step against Ballycran and now Sleacht Néill.
The Cuchullains were at their brilliant best against the Ardsmen, running out 18 point winners and while O’Kane said they were focussed on a good start and putting in a performance, he feel’s the final score wasn’t a fair reflection on the Down champions: “It was pleasing [the performance]. We did a good few things right in the game but I think the sending off had a major impact on the game. They went down to 14 men and the final score wasn’t a fair reflection on a good Ballycran side.
“We went out and wanted a performance. We did that and that’s pleasing off course but at the same time, that’s parked now and was soon after the game.
“All thoughts turned to Sunday’s match shortly after the final whistle in the Athletic Grounds.”
Two years ago Dunloy came up against the Sleacht Néill juggernaut in a packed Owenbeg. Over 6000 made the journey to the Derry Centre of Excellence where the Robbies recovered from an early Dunloy blitz to hit 1-8 without reply and take control. The Dunloy manager told us ‘whats done is done’ when he continued: “2017 is gone. I mean, you can’t ever play that match again. It was disappointing but we will have five or six boys who weren’t involved that day at all. It’s an Ulster final and it’s there to be won, two years ago hasn’t been in our thinking at all.
“Yes off course there’s been lessons learned from that game. We didn’t perform on the day but we’ve always been keen to continue looking forward. Keep the development and evolvement of this team going in the right direction and we feel like we’ve been doing that.”
After their shock defeat to Ballycran in last year’s Ulster semi-final, O’Kane feels Sleacht Néill are coming into Sunday’s final as a wounded animal with a point to prove: “They got caught last year against Ballycran and I’m sure they are feeling like they should have been going for four Ulster titles in a row. They’ll be out to prove a point but they’re a very, very good side. They’ve been going for the last six, seven or eight years in a row and keep coming back to make the challenge. It’s up to us to make sure we can meet that challenge.”
Dunloy’s record in the provincial final is unblemished to date. 10 times they reached the decider for the Four Seasons Cup and ten times the Cuchullain’s have brought the silverware back home with them. The occasion gets no less for O’Kane, the Dunloy manager has been involved in all of the campaigns whether as a player or now, manager: “This will be the clubs 11th Ulster Final, first since 2009. It’s great to see the next generation coming through and getting to experience these days. It’s massive for the club, the community and everyone connected with Dunloy club. We’re delighted to be here and we’re looking forward to what promises to be a wonderful occasion.”