O’Kane: “It’s a huge challenge but what a challenge to be involved in”

AIB All Irleand Senior Club Hurling Championship semi-final

Dunloy Manager Gregory O’Kane has been an integral part of the Cuchullains success both as player and manager.  He speaks with Brendan McTaggart as he prepares his side to face Galway champions, St Thomas on Sunday in Croke Park

The Dunloy team who were beaten by Galway Champions Portumna in the club’s last All Ireland semi-final at Parnell Park in 2010. Three of that team are still part of the current team. Paul Shiels, Kevin Molloy, Kevin McKeague while Dick O’Kane is now team manager and Kevin Martin (front left) is one of his assistants

If you told someone from Dunloy in 2010 it would be another 12 years before they would reach another All-Ireland semi-final, there would have been more than a few raised eyebrows.  Yet, here we are.  The Cuchullains prepare for their biggest game in over a decade with Galway opposition laying between them and a chance to finally get their hands on the Tom Moore Cup.

The Cuchullains have faced Galway opposition previously at this stage.  Athenry in 1995 and 2001, Sarsfields in 1998 and Portumna in 2003 and 2010.  Of those matches, they have recorded wins against Portunmna (’03) and memorably Athenry in 1995.  An iconic late Jarlath Cunning goal with the last action of the game to give Dunloy a place in the St Patrick’s Day Finals.  The original JC – no matter what Joe Canning or Joe Cooney has to say on the matter.

The one constant in those games was the now Dunloy manager, Gregory O’Kane.  He has been part of every success in the Cuchullains club, and on Sunday he looks to lead Dunloy to another Club Final.

The Cuchullains first foray into the All-Ireland series came in February 1991.  Having won their first Antrim and Ulster in the Autumn previous, Dunloy were pitted against Glenmore in Nolan Park.  A side littered with Heffernan’s and O’Connor’s.  Dunloy manager O’Kane recalls that game: “Away to Glenmore was our first game in the All-Ireland series and it was just a great experience.  I didn’t really give a hoot at the time, I just wanted to go and play hurling and it was a brilliant experience at that time.”

The Cuchullains were second best on that day but would avenge that defeat in 1996 at Croke Park where they reached their second successive Club Final.

Portumna legend Joe Canning and Dunloy’s Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels were in opposition that day in Parnell Park

To give an idea of Dunloy’s pedigree, they are the only club within Antrim to have defeated club sides from all provinces in Ireland – Mount Sion (Waterford) completing the wins for Dunloy at this level.

St Thomas lay in wait on Sunday and those with an eagle eye will have noticed a few in red and blue in the Athletic Grounds for the Ulster Final.  A side who have faced Antrim opposition in the past and a side who have already won the Tom Moore Cup.  In 2013 they defeated Loughgiel, the then reigning All-Ireland Champions in a replay.  The first match memorably finishing in a draw after Liam Watson hammered a 25 yard free to the back of the net with the last puck of the game.  Dunloy manager O’Kane told us the Galway men are a fine side: “You watch them as much as you can, learn as much as you can and pick up as much as you can. They’re a quality side, how could they not be.  They’ve won five Galway’s in a row and are past All-Ireland club champions.  They’re a super side backed by the Burke’s, no less a family like the Burke’s and it’s a huge challenge but what a challenge to be involved in.

“Galway teams have their own unique style of hurling.  They’re big, strong, physical men who like to use their bodies and they also like to use the ball.  It’s nothing we haven’t faced before and that’s key.  Meeting the challenge we face on the day come what may and giving as good account of ourselves as we can.”

Dick O’Kane congratulates a Portumna player at the end of the 2010 semi-final at Parnell Park

This is the first year the All-Ireland series is taking place before Christmas, meaning the Cuchullains didn’t have much time to recover from their bruising encounter with Slaughtneil.  However, O’Kane had no complaints: “It’s good because the players are in such good spirits.  We’re as fit and healthy as we ever where.  There’s no time to think and we’re still on a high from the Ulster Final.  The Ulster Final was brilliant but Sunday’s a completely new challenge and one we’re looking forward to.”  O’Kane concluded: “There is great buzz in the village and it’s great for everyone.  Great for the kids, for the older generation and great for everyone but the thing about the team is, we don’t want to get too involved in that there.  We have our own job to do and that’s key that we concentrate on our jobs and be the best we can be on the day.”

Gregory O’Kane with his wife and family after the Ulster final win over Slaughtneil in Armagh

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