James McKeague: “the semi-final was one of the great Dunloy displays”

Brendan McTaggart speaks with Dunloy chairman and recently retired Captain, James McKeague

A man with six county championship winners medals in his hip pocket, James McKeague has since hung up his hurl but taken on the mantle of Dunloy chairman after the sudden passing of James McLean earlier this year.

McKeague was one of the few links between Dunloy’s 2009 and 2017 championship winning sides and after captaining the Cuchullains to success, he looks back at his time in a Dunloy shirt with undoubted fondness: “We went through a bit of a transition over a period of time and we won championships in 2007 and 2009 but we had boys like Gregory (O’Kane) and Allistair Elliott leaving the panel and we really had to find our feet with a lot of new players.

“The cavalry arrived in 2017 but I suppose it was a great achievement to hold ourselves together from 2009 to 2017 and get that championship.  It was a long pull.

“You seen them coming through and there was a lot of talk about them coming through.  We integrated them into the panel but a couple of years before than Phelim Dufifn came into the panel and Nicky (McKeague) and Allistair Dooey, those boys are nearly the forgotten generation.  They came in and really made a mark on the team.  They brought discipline and when the next lads came in, they had the talent, class and forward ability to get us over the line in 2017.

James McKeague lifts the Volunteer Cup after Dunloy’s win over Cushendall in the 2017 final in Ballycastle

“It was maybe a shock to everyone in Antrim we got over the line in 2017.  The previous year we got beat by Ballycastle in the quarter-final and well beaten by them and we were wondering where we were going from there. But every year I played for Dunloy, I believed we could win the championship and every year we set out to win the championship.  Many years it didn’t work out that way but 2017 was no different.  We trained hard in preparation for the championship and once we got momentum built up against St Johns and then Ballycastle in the semi-final, I was in no doubt we would win the final.  Traditionally we have a very good record of getting to finals.”

The hype around the village is noticeable as soon as you enter the 30 mph speed limit on any road entering Dunloy.  Flags and bunting of green and gold are hung from every telegraph pole, street light, garden fence or chimney pot.  The whole community within Dunloy get behind their players and McKeague told us, it’s through the efforts of the community that the Cuchullains ground and clubhouses have evolved in recent years: “There’s a great tradition in Dunloy that when we get to a final, we make the most of it.  It’s great.  You see the colour around the village and tomorrow (today) is ‘green day’ in the school and that’s all I’ve heard from my wains this week, getting their hair sprayed for school.  

“As a community we enjoy the occasion and buy into that.

“The facilities we have are indebted to our community.  It’s really our community that have put our facilities here and built what you see today.  Last year before the pandemic, we ran a ‘300 Club’ and it was very, very successful for the club.  

“The community have put a lot into these facilities so it’s important that they are used in the correct manner.  I would very much see us as one big community, you look here tonight and the soccer club are using the 4G pitch, different groups come and use the gym, play indoor soccer, indoor hurling and people from all ages.  My own mother comes up here on a Saturday morning with others to attend a class in the gym, it’s for all age groups and great to see everybody get benefit from the facilities from the walking tracks to the gyms, to the astro-turf to enjoying our games.”  McKeague continued: “Next week we’re getting our 4G flood lit pitch Blessed and officially opened by Fr PJ, Fr Darren, Fr McNally and Fr Blayney.  It rolls on.”

Dunloy club in general have had another successful year throughout the age groups with their senior teams all chasing honours at the business end of the season in all codes.  McKeague told us this all filters down from one team leading by example: “There’s a real momentum about the club this year.  The underage teams are doing very, very well with the u15’s winning the county ‘b’ last week in the football and the u17’s are in the football final on Sunday afternoon.  The camogs have been in transition and are starting to build a bit of momentum.  Hopefully they’ll have a good year as well and the footballers got over the line last week against Glenavy and are in the semi-final of the championship.

“The senior hurling team, I feel, always sets the tone around what else happens in the club.  When they’re going well, it pulls everything with it and everyone goes well.  It’s no coincidence in my opinion, that last week the senior footballers got over the line, that had a lot to do with what happened the week before in the hurling.  A lot of those fella’s went into the football panel and it was a release for them.”

James McKeague (left) with his brothers Nicky and Kevin after the 2017 win over Cushendall

McKeague’s record from his own playing days when reaching the decider is up there with the best.  Seven finals and winning six of them.  The 2012 defeat to Loughgiel under the floodlights of Casement Park the only blip on his almost perfect record.   That final ultimately the last to be played at Casement Park until the old ground goes through major development.  He had a different view to most on the Cuchullains semi-final win over the Johnnies: “I do think the St John’s performance in the semi-final was one of the great Dunloy displays to be perfectly honest with you.  

“It was a game that had to be won and they dug real deep in terrible conditions and their discipline was superb.”

With the Final just around the corner, it will present a very different hurdle for McKeague.  As a former player, a father, a husband and now a chairman of the club he loves.  He told us: “I’m very relaxed about it.  I don’t want to get involved with what Gregory and that are doing there, they very much have their own thing and what they’re doing there but while I’ll be there as chairman, I’ll be there as a supporter.

“At matches I nearly like to be on my own and observe, I’ll be standing watching and encouraging as much as I can.”

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