McShane full of admiration for his squad

Mickey McShane copy

Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane

By Brendan McTaggart

Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane was delighted with his sides performance on Sunday.  Despite the early blitz from the Cuchullains, McShane told us that he expected a slow start from his side: “I wasn’t worried.  I knew that the pace of the game was going to be faster than anything we’d encountered all year and I knew it would take us 15 or 20 minutes to make that adjustment.  I think they had a five or six point lead but I knew that once we started to take a couple of scores and start crawling back, get a few tackles in and everything would have been fine.  Honestly, I’d have been happy going into half time two or three points down.

“It wasn’t psychological.  It was the pace of the game.  Dunloy have been playing the likes of St John’s, Ballycastle and Cushendall and no disrespect to the other teams in Derry but that’s a different level and higher pace to what we’ve been playing against plus Dunloy will have had a lot more hurling in their legs than Slaughtneil with their dual commitments.

“Once we got to the pace of the game, we were never going to blitz them like the way we did against Loughgiel.  It certainly wasn’t psychological.”

This Slaughtneil team have an average age of 23.  They have improved immeasurably in recent times and McShane said there is still more to come from his side: “The potential here is scary.  We had an average age out there younger than Dunloy and everyone was going on about this young Dunloy team.  These guys have a whole lot of maturing and a whole lot of getting better to do.  We came out of the Cuala game knowing we played a team who had been building for five or six years to get to that level of performance.  We know we’re four or five years behind them but we’re working towards that but while we’re trying to win an All-Ireland football title as well.

“We’re not talking about All-Ireland’s though.  We’ve won nothing out here today other than earning the right to compete in the Ulster Final against Ballygalget.  That will be another day and another tough game and in between these guys have the small matter of Kilcoo in the Ulster football championship so it’s all go.”

McShane paid tribute to his sides professionalism in the face of their hectic schedule when he continued: “These boys are in the changing room now and they’re already thinking on their recovery for next Sunday.  They never tune out.  They got up today for a big performance and now Mickey (Moran) will start to get them up again on Tuesday for another big performance.  How they do it?  I just don’t know but I’ve got nothing but admiration for them.  They’re brilliant at their job.”

The Slaughtneil reserved special praise for two of his players when he continued: “We’ve got great leaders in our team and in my mind there’s no greater leader in the GAA than Chrissy McKaigue.  He’d be the first to admit that he was slow to get starting there today but by God when we needed him he stood up as he always does, as did Gerald Bradley.  He was in defence, he was in attack driving us on and some of his catching was out of the top drawer.”

Slaughtneil remain on course to retain their Ulster crown and will go into the match as Ballygalget as favourites.  McShane said that they are hoping for more recognition for achievements on the hurling field: “I thought there was a certain element of people who thought that we caught Loughgiel on the hop last year or a Derry team were always going to get lucky some time and the whole focus this year from our lads was to go back and win another Ulster but I repeat, we haven’t won that yet.  But beating the Antrim champions two years in a row is a statement from these guys, they’re a top team and they’re going to be a top team for a long time to come but there’s still a lot of developing to be done.”

Over 6000 people packed into Owenbeg for the semi-final, the biggest crowd recorded at the Dungiven venue.  McShane told us that he wasn’t surprised by the attendance and it was always going to be a spectacle: “Everyone knew it was going to be a good game of hurling.  Dunloy impressed winning in Antrim and we’ve impressed these last couple of three years.  It was in a good venue for everyone so there was always going to be a good crowd and hopefully they’re away home having enjoyed a really fulsome, hard hitting game of hurling.  It wasn’t a dirty game of hurling at all.  Forget about that at the end there, that was just frustration.  There was no dirt in that game.  There was hard hits and the referee did his job magnificently well.”Premier Electrics

 

O’Kane: “The game was played on Slaughtneil’s terms.”

 

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Dunloy manager Gregory O’Kane

By Brendan McTaggart

It wasn’t the ending to the season that Gregory O’Kane would have envisaged after the Antrim final win two weeks ago.  The Dunloy championship train was derailed by the brilliant juggernaut that is Slaughtnail GAC in front of a packed Owenbeg.  Despite a start they would have dreamed about on Saturday night, the Cuchullains struggled in the second quarter.  They came up against and faced a slick, athletic and an efficiently awesome side in the Derry champions and on Sunday they went someway to proving to the rest of Ulster that their victory in 2016 was far from a fluke.

The Dunloy manager was still on the Owenbeg pitch when we caught up with him after the game.  It’s never easy to digest and analyse so soon after the final whistle but O’Kane told us that the Antrim championship took more out of his squad than they bargained for: “In terms of physicality on the day, they were on a different level to us.

“I think we peaked in the Antrim championship final.  It was always going to be serious hard reach those levels that we achieved and played at against Cushendall and in terms of physicality, today was maybe a year or two too early for some of these guys.

“They’re very physical and great athletes, that’s the standard and where we want to get to.”

After the opening quarter, Slaughtneil dominated the semi-final and Dunloy couldn’t find their fast, free flowing game.  When asked if that was down to Slaughtneil and the tactics they employed, O’Kane added: “The game was played on Slaughtneil’s terms.  If that happens then you’re playing second fiddle when it comes to breaks and chances.  You end up snatching at ball and become rushed when you should be more composed.  They had that cushion after the first half.”

O’Kane admitted that his side were beaten by the better side on the day but told us that his side will bounce back from this defeat and come back next year with renewed vigour: “They’re serious athletes and they played two Ulster finals before they won one.  In terms of experience in the Ulster championship they are definitely ahead of us but this has been a good year for the club in terms of progress and we can build on this and come back stronger.”Premier Electrics

Slick Slaughthneil a step too far for Cuchullains

AIB Ulster Club Hurling Championship @ Owenbeg

Dunloy 2-8 Slaughtneil 1-180-11

By Brendan McTaggart

Dunloy were taught a harsh lesson in Owenbeg on Sunday afternoon as Slaughtneil reinforced their credentials as the best team in Ulster.  Seven points separated the sides at the end of the 60 minutes and in truth it did not flatter the the Oakleaf men, who on this display are firm favourites to retain their provincial crown.

It was an incredible performance from the Derry champions who didn’t score their first point from open play until the 20th minute of the game.  Brendan Rodgers with his first of two during the match but it signalled an awakening from Slaughtneil.  Dunloy had made a dream start and after the opening quarter lead by six points, thanks largely to a goal from Nigel Elliott but once Slaughtneil went through the gears, they were ruthlessly brilliant.  1-8 without reply in barely 12 minutes ensured they were firmly on the front foot and they never looked back from then on.

Star forward Cormac O’Doherty put on an exhibition for the winners, finishing with 0-11 for his hours work despite an uncertain start to the match while the Robbies goal came from Rodgers.  Dunloy managed a second goal in second half injury time, Paul Shiels hammering a free high to the back of the Slaughtneil net from 30 plus yards but it acted as scant consolation for the Cuchullains.

Slaughtneil had their homework done on the Dunloy hugely vaunted attacking prowess, conceding just 1-3 from play throughout the match with Karl McKaigue and Meehaul McGrath inspirational in defence.  Their work rate in rucks and breakdown in midfield allowed them to maintain pressure on the Cuchullains with Gerald Bradley and Captain Chrissy McKaigue immense.

The Cuchullains were reduced to 14 men when star forward Conal Cunning was given a straight red card for an altercation in injury time but the match was long over as a contest at that stage as Slaughtneil sent out a warning to the rest of Ulster.  They have a vice like grip on the Four Seasons Cup and don’t intend to loosen their clutch on the provincial crown in a hurry.

Dunloy made two changes from the team that won the county championship two weeks earlier, Paudie Shivers and Ally Dooey coming in for the injured Oran Quinn and full forward Chrissy Brogan.  A free from O’Doherty opened the scoring in the first minute but such was the intensity that the Cuchullains started the game with, it was the last time the Derry champions would trouble the scoreboard operative until the 15th minute.  Paul Shiels picking up from where he left off against Cushendall from placed ball in the third minute before a superb score from Eoin O’Neill put the Cuchullains in the lead in the fifth minute.  The Cuchullains attacking unit were living up to their pre-match billing and when Nigel Elliott found the back of Oisin Doherty’s net in the eighth minute, the Cuchullains support could have been forgiven for thinking they were dreaming.  Retrieving a long delivery from Conor McKinley, Elliott rounded his man before making a trademark dart into the Slaughtneil defence.  His shot was low, drilled and accurate.  The sliotar in the back of the net and the crowd of over 6000 in attendance at Owenbeg erupted.

‘Shorty’ doubled his tally with a free in the 11th minute before a huge score from Gabriel McTaggart opened the Dunloy lead to six points.  That would be as good as it got for the Cuchullains though as Slaughtneil started to settle into the game.  Dropping Gerard Bradley into a deeper role proved to be an inspirational move by the Slaughtneil management team as Bradley was immense in the first half.  If he wasn’t pulling the sliotar out of the sky he was fighting tooth and nail in rucks to gain his side possession.  Dunloy simply couldn’t get a footing as the Oakleaf champions hit eight unanswered points to take a two point lead before Rodgers scored Slaughtneil’s goal in the 26th minute.  Rodgers was at the edge of the square when Chrissy McKaigue sent a long ball into the heart of the Dunloy defence.  Rodgers had Kevin Molloy and Ryan Elliott for company but managed to pull on the sliotar in mid-air and find the back of the Dunloy net.

It rounded off a sensational 12 minute period of hurling for the reigning Ulster champions who went from looking like they were in trouble to taking control of their own destiny.

Shiels stopped the rot when he pointed a free in the 28th minute to reduce the deficit to four points and end the scoring for the half as Slaughtneil went into the interval 1-9 to 1-5 ahead.

Dunloy needed another second half renaissance similar to their county final showing and when Keelan Molloy scored his first of the match with barely a minute played in the second half, the Cuchullain fans would have been forgiven for casting their minds back to that spell of hurling just two weeks ago.  What they got though was more brilliance from Slaughtneil.  O’Doherty, Rodgers, Brian Cassidy before O’Doherty again punished the Antrim champions.

Half time substitute Nicky McKeague and Shiels pointed frees either side of an O’Doherty ’65 but Slaughtneil were relentless.  Three further points in as many minutes from O’Doherty (two) and Brian Cassidy opened a nine-point lead as the game entered injury time.

A brilliant 30 plus yard free riffled to the back of the net from Shiels took his tally to 1-4 for the hour but it was too little too late as far as the Cuchullains were concerned.  Fittingly, it was an O’Doherty free that rounded up the scoring in the third minute of injury time before Cunning saw red souring the end of what was an absorbing contest.

The experience of playing in such games was a major difference between these sides.  Slaughtneil have earned the right to be called the best hurling team in Ulster the hard way in 2016 and on Sunday they showed their class.  For Dunloy, their unbeaten Ulster record comes to an abrupt end and while defeat always leaves a sour taste, they can take solace from the fact that they have shown huge progression in 2017 and build for the future from here.

The Antrim connection. Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane and Cormac Donnelly who is one of his assistants 

Dunloy: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin; James McKeague; Paudie Shivers; Kevin McKeague; Conor McKinley; Kevin Molloy; Ciaran Elliott; Paul Shiels; Nigel Elliott; Gabriel McTaggart; Keelan Molloy; Eoin O’Neill; Ally Dooey; Conal Cunning

Subs: Nicky McKeague for C Elliott (HT); Christopher Brogan for A Dooey (39 mins); Shane Dooey for G McTaggart (42 mins); Eamon Smyth for P Shivers (49 mins)

Slaughtneil: Oisin Doherty; Karl McKaigue; Sean Cassidy; Mark McGuigan; Meehaul McGrath; Shane McGuigan; Paul McNeill; Conor McAllister; Christopher McKaigue; Gerald Bradley; Sean Cassidy; Brendan Rodgers; Se McGuigan; Brian Cassidy; Cormac O’Doherty

Subs: Cormac McKenna for Sean Cassidy (10 mins); Gareth O’Kane for Seán Cassidy (35 mins)

Scorers

Dunloy: Paul Shiels 1-4 (1-4 frees); Nigel Elliott 1-00; Gabriel McTaggart 0-1; Keelan Molloy 0-1; Eoin O’Neill 0-1; Nicky McKeague 0-1 (1 free)

Slaughtneil: Cormac O’Doherty 0-11 (6 frees, 1 ’65); Brendan Rodgers 1-2; Brian Cassidy 0-2; Sé McGuigan 0-1; Christopher McKaigue 0-1; Cormac McKenna 0-1

Ref: James Clarke (Cavan)

 

Dunloy bid to dethrone the champions

AIB Ulster Club Hurling Championship Semi-Final @ Owenbeg

Dunloy vs Slaughtneil

Throw In: 2:30pm

Referee: James Clarke

By Brendan McTaggart

CRLL6227Dunloy celebrate their Antrim final win over Cushendall

For the people of Dunloy, all roads lead to Dungiven on Sunday.  After a pitch inspection early Friday afternoon, Owenbeg was cleared ‘fit’ to play this weekend.  The Cuchullains have an unblemished record when it comes to the Ulster Championship, this will be their 11th time competing for the provincial honour and they have taken the four seasons trophy back to the village on every occasion.  The only time the Four Seasons Cup didn’t return to Pearse Park after county success was in 1998 when they were stopped from competing in the competition.  A story for another day.

Reigning Ulster champions Slaughtneil are the Cuchullains opponents on Sunday and they’re opposition that need no introduction to anyone in Antrim and further afield.  They’ve had battles with Loughgiel and Cushendall in recent times to no avail but last year they made their breakthrough.  An early blitz against the Shamrocks proved to be decisive, the Derry champions recording 2-3 in the opening nine minutes before Loughgiel registered their first score of the match.  In the end, four points separated the sides and Slaughtneil became the first team from the Oakleaf county to win the provincial hurling title.

CRLL0253Slaughtneil celebrate last season’s Ulster final win over Loughgiel

The Slaughtneil story is one of persistence, drive, hunger and perseverance.  They’ve knocked on the door until the door opened and that door was ripped off the hinges in the Athletic Grounds last October.  Slaughtneil will start Sunday’s semi-final as favourites and when you look at their credentials, it’s easy to see why.  Reigning champions is the easy part but a closer look at the Robbies squad tells you they have an average of 23 and much like Dunloy, they have been bolstered by a crop of players who came through the ranks winning everything in front of them and that includes an Ulster minor title where they defeated Dunloy two years ago.  They’re a team who thrive on proving the experts wrong and a team who learn on their feet but they’re overriding trait is their togetherness as a team.  Yes, they have star players, forward Brendan Rogers has score 0-17 in his two championship matches this year with ten frees in that tally while he’s ably assisted in attack by Sé McGuigan and Cormac O’Doherty.  Their game-plan revolves around an incredible level of work-rate in the rucks and breakdown.  That’s where Captain Chrissy McKaigue and Gerald Bradley will be looking to dominate while their defence is notoriously water tight – conceding just 1-15 from play in their two matches.  Expect Karl McKaigue and Paul McNeill to be tasked with man marking duties while the intelligence and positioning of Shane McGuigan and Sean Cassidy at the heart of their defence is the rock which the Slaughtneil defence is built.  They’re a physical team and an incredibly athletic team that is borne from their dedication to their club – the vast majority of Slaughtneil’s 30-man squad are dual players.

Premier ElectricsGoing into Sunday as underdogs won’t hinder the Cuchullains, they were third placed in the bookies at the start of the Antrim championship while Cushendall were expected to account for them in the county final.  It will be the first time that they’ll have come into the Ulster championship without the favourites tag hanging around their neck if they are tp defy the bookies again they will have to match Slaughtneil for intensity right from the first whistle.  The Ulster final last year showed that if you switch off against them they will punish you and they will look to come out of the blocks fast.

Sunday will be a huge examination of the Cuchullains half back line for the full 60 minutes and while it’s an area where the Dunloy men are certainly strong, they will be asked more questions throughout the match than they have been posed during the Antrim championship.

The Cuchullains have coped with every challenge that has come their way in the 2017 championship and they will need to do the same on Sunday.  Against St John’s, in the words of Gregory O’Kane, they had to win the game twice while in the semi-final against Ballycastle they laid to rest any demons that would have been lingering from previous championship defeats.  The county final came and they proved against the Ruairi’s that they are more than just a team for the future and on Sunday they have to beat the best that Ulster has to offer.

Can they do it?  It would take a brave man to bet against them.  You get the feeling that this Dunloy team haven’t played to their full potential yet.  The 20 minutes after half time was simply breath taking and would have been enough to strike fear into any team, it will take more than 20 minutes to get the better of this highly talented Slaughtneil team.  If the Cuchullains can do that, they may just be on the verge of another Ulster title.  I’m backing Dunloy to defy the bookies again and continue their incredible record in the Ulster championship – the Cuchullains to dethrone the Robbies in the heart of the oakleaf county.

Pics by Mark Doherty

McKeague ready to lead his band of brothers

AIB Ulster Club Hurling Championship semi-final preview  – Slaughtneil v Dunloy

By Brendan McTaggart

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Dunloy captain James McKeague lifts the Volunteer Cup after his team’s win over Cushendall in the Antrim county final. Pic by John McIlwaine

Dunloy Captain James McKeague is as cool and calm a man you are ever likely to meet.  Nothing phases the man, not even a late night, unexpected phone call from yours truly looking for an interview.  All in his stride.  It’s easy to see why he’s been made the captain of the Cuchullains.  A leader both on and off the pitch.

The Dunloy captain finished the match with two brothers against Cushendall and the Cuchullains full back told us that although it was something special, he was especially delighted for other members of the Dunloy squad: “It’s brilliant to play and win with Kevin and Nicky and hurling is all that’s talked about in our house but we have a band of 30 brothers in our squad and winning with them makes it all worthwhile.

“It was a brilliant occasion but I’m delighted for the group of boys that we have within the squad that are in their early to mid-20’s.  The likes of Nigel Elliott, Nicky (McKeague) and Phelim Duffin.  Lads that have had their shares of knocks on the way to senior hurling and while they’ve been there.  They probably wondered if it would ever come good for them at senior level, like the rest of us – we wondered if we’d ever win another one in our career and it’s those guys that I was especially delighted for.”

The county final went to plan as far as McKeague was concerned as he told us that despite their first half blip, they had the belief in their own ability to see the job through and bring the Volunteer Cup back to the village for the first time in eight years: “It was a great day and a great occasion for the team and the parish.  For ourselves it’s very satisfying to say that we executed what we wanted to do.  We probably played within ourselves in the first half but we came out in the second half and took the game to Cushendall and showed what we’re capable off.”

After the last number of years where the Cuchullains had failed to make any inroads in the Antrim championship, they finally got it right this year and they did so with an injection of youth from their recent minor successes.  McKeague gave us an insight on how the new blood helped to freshen things up in the Cuchullains camp: “The group of younger players came up from the minors last year and it certainly energised the whole squad again.  In the past couple of years, we underperformed when it mattered most but this year right from the word go, training has been different.  There’s been a different atmosphere and the new blood in the squad this year has helped to maybe add the final piece to the jigsaw.

“The strength we have on the bench has helped all year and it’s something that has kept us going in training.  We haven’t been able to rest on our laurels thinking that we’re guaranteed a starting place.”

McKeague is a ‘young veteran’ of this Dunloy team and one of the few who have experienced the Ulster championship before.  It’s another step up in intensity and McKeague admitted that the Cuchullains go into the match as underdogs: “It’s a big challenge that lays ahead for us.  Slaughtneil have shown in the last number of years what they’re capable off and against Loughgiel in last year’s Ulster final they blew them away in the first half.”

The Oakleaf champions have won the Derry crown for the last five years now and their improvement at provincial level has been apparent for all to see.  They have been made as favourites and rightly so but McKeague told us that the Cuchullains are sticking with the tried and trusted formula that seen them breach an eight-year gap in county championships: “We’ve seen bits of them but we’ve just been concerning ourselves about us and what we’ll be bringing to the game.  They’ll start as favourites with being reigning Ulster champions but I don’t read too much into favourite’s tags.  Cushendall started as favourites in the county final and we paid no attention to that at all.  All year we’ve been concentrating on what we bring to the 60 plus minutes of hurling and Sunday will be no different.”

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James McKeague leads his team in the pre match pararde at the coutny final in Ballycastle.

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