By Brendan McTaggart
In a season of uncertainty, there’s a familiar look to the final pairing. North Antrim’s ‘Old Firm’, Dunloy and Loughgiel make their way to Páirc Uí Uílin with the Volunteer Cup on the line. But before we look into the who’s who and what’s what of the final, we have to talk about the semi-finals.
Rossa and St John’s played their part in one of the most epic match day’s in my living memory. I could quite easily be writing about the first all-city final in my lifetime with both of these Belfast big guns going agonisingly close.
Rossa had Dunloy down. Having recovered from an early Cuchullain blitz, they found a way back and Dunloy were on the brink. An inspired point from Seaan Elliott and Chrissy ‘Rossa Slayer’ McMahon edged Dunloy into the final. An epic ending yet so cruel on a Rossa side who died with their boots on for their club. Who knows if a more spread schedule would have helped the Jeremiah’s. I’ve been fascinated in recent years with how Slaughtneil men have fought on both fronts to Ulster titles and the overriding attribution is momentum. The Derry kingpins kept rolling, perhaps the Antrim hurling semi-final was one roll too many. Stephen Beatty and James Connolly having to come off certainly had a bearing on the game but Dunloy responded like the champions they are.
St John’s are probably wondering what they have to do in order to reach a county final. Three years, extra time on each occasion, the Johnnies have to wait one more year. Four points up going into injury time at the end of the hour last Sunday, not only had they one foot in the door, they were about to close the said door behind them.
Loughgiel hit back. Eddie McCloskey and Damon McMullan immense, Donal McKinley tireless with Liam Watson and Benny McCarry rolling back the years. The Shamrocks made extra time their own but the match will forever be remembered for one man. Domhnall Nugent. Curly likened him to Roger Federer with his one-armed action swing, a quite brilliant analogy. A performance that deserved to put his side into a first Antrim final in 26 years but it wasn’t to be. Loughgiel had other ideas.
So. A Dunloy and Loughgiel final. ‘Friends’ from across the sheugh head to Ballycastle in a hotly anticipated final. Matches between these two sides rarely disappoint and if there’s one thing you can expect, it’s the unexpected.
There’s injury concerns everywhere you turn in both camps. Starting with the reining champions first, they’ve had a gruelling schedule with football commitments and an Intermediate final to look forward to next weekend. 12 of their starting 15 from Tuesday nights semi-final against All-Saints are dual players so niggles and concerns are to be expected.
Paul Shiels tops the list. Forced off after a quarter of their game with Rossa, the Dunloy camp have played down any concerns. I’d imagine they’ll patch him up if possible to get one last tune out of ‘Shorty’ for this season. The Dunloy quarter-back is pivotal in how the Cuchullains play. Ryan McGarry faces a race against time to recover from his knee injury while Deaglan Smith is in the same position. Plagued with problems since the end of the 2019 league, Smith will be itching to have any involvement.
Loughgiel’s main concern lays in their full back line. Neilly McGarry remains doubtful while Tony McCloskey looked in a fair amount of discomfort leaving the Dunsilly pitch. The initial assessment is his ankle and I’d be amazed if the Shamrock’s defender makes the starting 15. Odhran McFadden is also a doubt after taking a knock against St Johns.
Sunday might come down to who has less injuries or more strength in depth.
The strength in depth gives Dunloy a huge nudge. There’s no doubting, Loughgiel are building something but Dunloy talk about finishers these days instead of substitutes. Guys who can come on and make instant impact. Last Sunday, some eyebrows were raised, mine included, when Gregory O’Kane called for Kevin Molloy to come off for Chrissy McMahon. ‘Bunga’ is a warrior and the type of player you want in a battle that the game against Rossa undoubtedly was. O’Kane’s move was bold but the saying ‘fortune favours the bold’ was ringing through my ears on the way home from Dunsilly.
Looking at potential match ups, the possibility of Conor McKinley and Liam Watson coming up against each other is mouth-watering and one both players will relish. Phelim Duffin could pick up Shan McGrath while Conor Kinsella could look to curtail the influence of James McNaughton.
How Loughgiel look to dampen the Dunloy attack is likely to be a collective effort more than individuals. Two years ago they ambushed the then reigning champions, Dunloy. A display of total commitment, work rate and fierce desire. Absolutely no let-up for the full 60 plus minutes in a windy and rain swept Ballycastle pitch.
I’m expecting more of the same with the pace of Eddie McCloskey, McNaughton and Callum McKendry their outlet to break from rucks.
Two years ago it worked, last year Dunloy did enough. What will Sunday bring? That depends on how Dunloy approach this and their personnel. If the Cuchullains go to the trenches with Loughgiel, they need Shorty in quarter back to play the pass and pick the speed merchants in Seaan Elliott and Keelan Molloy. They have the game to go that road and play Loughgiel at their own game.
12 months ago they targeted rucks, even from the majority of their own puck-outs. A ploy I didn’t see coming yet one that ultimately proved to be successful. The Cuchullains play better with quick ball from the restart and fast ball into their forwards. If they go to mirror last year, expect Gabriel McTaggart to be below a lot of Ryan Elliott’s puck-outs with Nicky McKeague, Keelan Molloy and Shorty close by for assistance if fit.
Free takers will be crucial. In the game known as ‘Dugout Gate’ James McNaughton’s accuracy from placed ball in a windswept Ballycastle was mesmerising. It wasn’t just at the same heights last week but McNaughton has nerves of steal and has shown he will stand up for the Shamrocks when required.
The Cuchullains have the same in Conal Cunning. But if it isn’t working for Coby, they have Seaan Elliott, Nicky McKeague and Shorty to reach the sliotar to.
Prediction time and just for the record, I got a full house last week. It took six rounds of championship matches but I finally got there. My prediction? Are you really expecting me to back anyone else other than Dunloy? I didn’t think so. I joked with a good friend during the week, I’d make a case for Dunloy to beat Tipperary but I genuinely believe Loughgiel need everything to go right for them and for the Cuchullains to have an off day to take the Volunteer Cup back to Fr Healy Park. The ‘leveller’ could be the extent of the Cuchullains injuries but I believe they have enough in reserve.
Before I go, I’ll leave you with this and to steal a line from the late great Seamus Heaney: “If we can winter this one out, we can summer anytime.” I was reminded of it a while back and yet it has never been more apt. This has been a year most want to forget with fear, worry and stress rife. None more so than I. Yet, hurling has been a release. An uncertain beginning to a season no one expected to have on our doorstep and a very big realisation if it were needed, that GAA plays a massive part of our lives. It has been a bonding agent for helping us all get through troubled and stormy waters. We’re knee deep in ‘winter’ but I for one don’t want the hurling to end. Sunday promises to be a cracker, lets hope it lives up to the billing.