Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship
Dunloy vs Slaughtneil
Venue: Athletic Grounds, Armagh
Throw In: 4pm
By Brendan McTaggart
63. The number of days that will have lapsed since Dunloy were crowned Antrim champions for the third year in a row having accounted for Rossa at Corrigan Park. Nine weeks. The length of time between competitive fixtures that just defies logic and is bereft of sense. Yet here it is. The biggest game of the club hurling calendar so far this year as Dunloy look to their old nemeses, Slaughtneil with Ballycran waiting in the wings the week after.
It’s an early Christmas Cracker.
Twice in recent times the Derry kingpins have brought the Cuchullains back down to earth, most recently in 2019 as the nine in a row Derry champions proved they are the team to beat in Ulster and have set the bar high for others to reach. Gregory O’Kane will have been plotting a way to ensure it will be third times a charm for his Dunloy side in Armagh.
The Cuchullains blazed their way to the Antrim championship in October, saving their best performance of the year for the cameras in Corrigan Park. Recently crowned ‘Player of the Year’ Paul Shiels putting in a man of the match performance and rolling back the years in a superb display against Rossa. In truth, the Cuchullains had timed their run to Antrim glory to perfection. Improving with every game, something they know they will need to do once again to overcome Slaughtneil.
It seems in recent times Slaughtneil, there have been three certainties. Death, taxes and Slaughtneil winning the Derry hurling championship. An incredible ninth title in succession and for a more indepth look at the Robbies, we spoke with Gaelic Life journalist, former Derry Post sports editor and Slaughtneil native, Michael McMullan. A long time friend to us at the Saffron Gael, ‘Mal’ is well known for his superb match analysis and was part of Damian McErlain’s minor football backroom team such was his attention for detail.
“As hurling has evolved, Slaughtneil have definitely evolved with it.” Began Mal, “The short passing game to get out of trouble, finding a way out of traffic and recycling the ball. McShane (Michael, Slaughtneil manager) has definitely got them well tuned in that way.
“He likes to create space for the forwards, may that be a two man full forward line or half forward but there’s always a spare man in midfield. That can allow the likes of Gerard Bradley to step back into a sweeper.
“They did that in the 2019 game but something that went unnoticed was the work of Brian Cassidy and Mark McGuigan from that game. They did the work of three men inside.”
It’s not only in attack where Slaughtneil have made changes with Mal telling us, McShane has made more positional changes: “Sean ‘Tad’ had been full back but he got a tough run against Tiarnan McHugh (Kevin Lynch’s full forward) in a couple of county finals. Shane McGuigan fell back and is definitely the number one full back now, that changed against Ballyhale last year when he was asked to do a job on TJ Reid but it shows they are an intelligent side as well. They can make changes and their ‘machine’ doesn’t miss a beat.”
One major change enforced this year is the absence of Sean Cassidy, Mal told us his loss has been keenly felt in the Slaughtneil camp and highlighted how pivotal he has been in recent times for McShane’s men: “Sean Cassidy is a big loss this year, he’s been out with a cruciate injury and for me he was key in the short, precise passing game in defence but Conor McKenna is in there now. I think he’s the oldest player in the squad, he played a year above Chrissy (McKaigue) in underage but he was around the squad for a while and went to Australia. He’s come back and he’s probably the story of this Slaughtneil side this year, he’s stuck at it and played well.”
Having injured his shoulder during the Derry final win against Kevin Lynch’s, team captain Cormac O’Doherty is in a race against time to be fit for Sunday’s semi-final. Having spoken with the Slaughtneil management, Mal continued by saying they are preparing for all eventualities: “Cormac O’Doherty would be a big loss, it hasn’t been confirmed but I was talking to Mickey (McShane) for the Gaelic Life and he told me they were ‘planning without Cormac.’ Swinging a hurl stresses the shoulder and he said he could be a couple of weeks short. I know he’s in training, running and the likes but I wouldn’t be sure if he’s had a hurl in his hand.”
Mal continued by giving us an insight into who Slaughtneil may look to fill the gap O’Doherty may leave: “He’ll leave a big hole that will take some filling. He could look to the likes of Conor McAllister to come in, he’d be seen as a regular but he got injured playing for Derry and has been out most of the season. He’s back and fit but that could lead to a reshuffle, McAllister would be more of a defender by trade.
“Se Cassidy made his championship debut in the 2020 county final, told on the morning of the final he’d be starting and is another option. He’d play in the full forward line and would probably see his brother Brian moving to Cormac’s position on the half forward line.
It’s all dependant on Cormac’s injury though. Maybe if someone else takes over the free taking duties, it might relief some of that pressure on his shoulder but starting him in a game of this nature would be a big call to make.”
Slaughtneil were beaten in the Derry football final by Glen, Sunday will mark four weeks since that match in Celtic Park. Some may say the fixture scheduling has been favourable for the Derry men to give them time to recover from that contest, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind on that one. Mal said Slaughtneil will definitely have benefitted from that extra time since that defeat to Glen: “Mentally, they looked shot at the end of the game. If they played Dunloy two or three weeks after that, Dunloy would have won given their frame of mind. The tank looked empty and it would have been a big ask to get up for this game mentally given how emphatically they were beaten by Glen.”
Like us all, the call to have the game at 4pm has left us all scratching our heads. It’s a strange one for both sets of supporters who would be taking families to the game. It’s a solid hour and a half’s drive from Dunloy to the Athletic Grounds while it’s not much less from Slaughtneil. Mal asked for some transparency when he concluded: “Playing the game at 4 o’clock under floodlights is a disgrace. It just doesn’t make sense to anyone. And even now, no-one knows where the final will be played. Surely someone could sit and say if it’s Dunloy and Ballycran, they play next Sunday in Owenbeg and if it’s Slaughtneil and Ballycran then they go to Corrigan Park. Just send an e-mail to the three teams concerned and lay it down. Then they know what’s what. A bit of transparency would go a long way with the clubs as well.”
The Cuchullains have a clean bill of health, apart from Phelim Duffin who sustained a broken ankle in the semi final win over St John’s. A nine week gap is far from ideal preparation for what will be their toughest game of the year and getting challenge games an impossibility at this time of year. But motivation isn’t hard to come-by for the Cuchullains. In 2017 they were a bit ‘green behind the ears’ while in 2019 they never really got out of second gear. On Sunday, they know what is required and they know what they have to do.
Slaughtneil are the kings of hurling in Ulster for the last five years, apart from 2018. Dunloy are on an upward trajectory and have continued to improve, with so many players involved in Antrim’s Division One campaign and Liam McCarthy matches this year, it’s all contributed to the Cuchullains improvement.
They have used just 18 players in the championship this year, a sign of a settled team and perhaps a clearer mindset in the Cuchullain’s camp. In attack, they can be devastating and have threats from every angle. Defensively they will need to be at their best. Brendan Rogers hit 4-9 in five championship games this year, three of those majors coming in a devastating display against Lavery. Brian Cassidy with 2-8 while Cormac O’Doherty totally 0-26 with six of those points coming from play. The role of Chrissy McKaigue could be influential on the game and could depend on whether Gerard Bradley drops into a sweeper. Like Rogers, he was instrumental against Lavey and the Lynch’s, totally 0-10 from midfield this year.
‘Winter is Here’ and ‘The Dark Knights’ are along with it. The restructured hurling calendar has given us this Christmas cracker with the beautiful game to keep us warm in the depths of December. Dunloy will be hoping to prolong their season for a little longer and an early Christmas present for the Cuchullain village.