Rivalries Renewed as Dunloy Prepare for Slaughtneil Test

Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship

Semi-Final

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.”

Cormac O’Doherty celebrates after scoring in the 2017 semi-final in Owenbeg

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.”

Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels will be a key figure in the Dunloy team on Sunday

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.”

Slaughtneil’s Brian Cassidy in action against Dunloy in 2017

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.

Diary of a final

A look back at Antrim hurling’s biggest day, summing up what it is all about, both behind scenes and out on the white heat of the battle. It all started for the Saffron Gael team at 13-45 when we arrived at the ground and ended just over four hours later. This is a record of what happened in between!

13-55 – All quiet on the Western front as Corrigan awaits its heroes, the safety stewards have a final meeting and the final touches are added to have the pitch looking spick and span

14-10 – The Volunteer Cup, saved from the scrapheap and looking as good as the day it was first played for, is back on show
14-30 – A young hurling fan uses the grass bank to practice his solo runs before the crowd arrive
15-02 – Fr PJ arrives wearing the same hat he wore the day the Cuchullains won their first title in 1990

15-36 – Team captains Stehen Beatty of Rossa and Paul Shiels of Dunloy with match referee Mark O’Neill. Mark with his two linesmen Colm McDonald and Ciaran McCloskey

15-38 – The teams follow piper Eamon Downey in the pre-match parade
16-27 – Members of Casement Social Club committee present a cheque for £20,000 to Antrim county chairman Ciaran McCavana during the half time break.
17-06 – Dunloy fans pour onto the field at the final whistle
17-10 – Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels lifts the Volunteer Cup

17-20 to 17-40 – Photos with family and friends are taken, treasured memories which will be part of the family folklore for years to come.

17-50 – The last two Dunloy players Kevin Mckeague and Kevin Molloy leave the field and head off to the celebrations

The ‘Cuchullain Village’ Celebrates

Dunloy took to the street on Sunday evening to welcome their side back home from Belfast and welcome the Volunteer Cup back to the village, making it three in a row and the fourth in five years.

Eamon and Willie Richmond were ready with the Creagh Concrete Lorry and Pappy’s Band drummed up an atmosphere with smoke flares burning through the Main Street of the village.

The hordes made their way to Pearse Park where chairman James McKeague addressed the crowd before Paul Shiels and Gregory O’Kane took over. The team had the final say with their own song with the crowds cheering.

A memorable night in Dunloy and there’s no doubting the celebrations will spill into another day, maybe two.

Classy Cuchullains make it three-in-a-row

Bathshack Senior Hurling Championship Final

Dunloy 3-23 Rossa 1-14

Sunday October 10

Brendan McTaggart reports from Corrigan Park, Dunloy

Dunloy produced their best performance of the year on Sunday afternoon to sweep aside the challenge of Rossa and retain the Volunteer Cup and draw level with the Belfast men in the role of honour on 15 titles each. Ironically 15 points separated the sides in what was widely anticipated to be a close contest, but the Cuchullains clicked into gear early and rarely gave the city men an opportunity to build any momentum.

Three first half goals from Conal Cunning, Seaan Elliott and Chrissy McMahon put daylight between the sides as Rossa misfired.  They needed everything to be perfect to have the fairy-tale ending but in truth they were taught a harsh lesson from a slick Dunloy machine.

Rossa looked to semi-final hero Michael Armstrong for inspiration as he and Stephen Beatty tried to make inwards in a brilliant Dunloy defence.  Their ability to win primary possession was never in question but how Dunloy dealt with that danger with mechanic like precision.  A defensive unit moving with speed, tenacity and hunger, Dunloy had brought their ‘A’ game when they needed it most.

The midfield was always going to be key.  Rossa pin pointed this area to try and stifle the delivery of ball into the Dunloy forwards but Kevin Molloy and Paul Shiels showed it’s not just about the young lads in the Cuchullains set up.  ‘Shorty’ and ‘Bunga’ were immense as they dominated the middle of the pitch.  Kevin Molloy with five points and my shout for man of the match but it could have easily gone to Shorty while Conal Cunning got the nod from the TG4 men at Corrigan.  1-11 with 1-3 from play, you would think he was a certainty for that accolade but such was the performance of his team mates, it was a tough call.

Stephen Beatty battled incredibly for the Rossa, fully deserving his second half major while Deaglan Murphy ran himself into the ground for the Rossa cause.  Chris McGuinness another who lead by example with three points from play but they couldn’t match the intensity or skill the Cuchuallins brought to the table.

Both sides made changes from their semi-finals with Kevin Molloy and Kevin McKeague coming into the 15 for Dunloy, replacing Nicky McKeague and Phelim Duffin while Thomas Morgan replaced Dominic McEnhill for Rossa.

The score was tied on one point apiece when Dunloy scored the opening goal.  Shiels and Cunning combining to assist Seaan Elliott who provided the calm finish.  Rossa’s challenge was hurt with a run of five wides in the opening 10 minutes while the Cuchullains were more measured and economical with their approach.  With just two points between the sides at the first half water-break, Dunloy took control in the second quarter with two goals in five minutes.  Chrissy McMahon and Elliott cutting through the Rossa defence before laying the sliotar into the path of Coby and he beat the rushing Donal Armstrong.  The third Dunloy goal came with Cunning involved again, collecting a long delivery from Kevin Molloy and while Donal Armstrong did enough to stop him from grabbing a second major, McMahon was there to apply the finish and give Dunloy an eight point lead.

Stephen Beatty fires in the Rossa goal

The Cuchullains were going through the gears and were unlucky not to have a fourth goal moments later.  Seaan Elliott was through on goal and looked to have been fouled but with the sliotar going lose, McMahon swept home only for referee Mark O’Neill to call the play back for an earlier infringement.

10 points separated the sides at the short whistle and Dunloy had one hand on the Volunteer Cup.  Rossa brought on Dara Rocks and Eoin Trainor to try and revive their feint hopes of a first senior championship success since 2004 but six points in nine minutes from Dunloy with three from Rossa put further daylight between the sides.  

By the time the game reached the second half water-break, Dunloy were 14 points clear and relentless. They were putting on a show for the large crowd at Corrigan and continued to purr.

Stephen Beatty’s major came in the 51st minute but the Cuchullains had already looked to their bench to give their subs a chance to taste the closing stages of final win.

Kevin Molloy fittingly scored the final point of the contest from the most ridiculous of angles to add further gloss to the score line.

Dunloy’s Paul Molloy who gave a real masterclass at midfield for the Cuchullains

Dunloy make it three in a row, four in five years and 15 in total.  The Volunteer Cup stays in Pearse Park for 2021.

TEAMS

Dunloy: Ryan Elliott; Aaron Crawford, Conor McKinley, Conor Kinsella; Ronan Molloy, Kevin McKeague, Ryan McGarry; Paul Shiels, Keelan Molloy; Eoin McFerran, Kevin Molloy, Eoin O’Neill; Chrissy McMahon, Conal Cunning, Seaan Elliott

Sub: Nicky McKeague for E McFerran (39); Deaglan Smith for C McMahon (52); Eamon Smyth for K McKeague (56); Gabriel McTaggart for E O’Neill (60); Oran Quinn for A Crawford (inj)

Scorers: C Cunning 1-11 (8f); Kevin Molloy 0-5; S Elliott 1-2; C McMahon 1-1; P Shiels 0-2; Keelan Molloy 0-1; E O’Neill 0-1

Rossa: Donal Armstrong; Ciaran Orchin, Adrian Kinneally, Aidan Orchin; Stephen Shannon, Michael Armstrong, Chris McGuinness; Gerald Walsh, Deaglan Murphy; Daire Murphy, Seaghan Shannon, Aodhan O’Brien; Tiarnan Murphy, Stephen Beatty, Thomas Morgan

Subs: Conal Shannon for A Orchin (7); Eoin Trainor for Seaghan Shannon (HT); Dara Rocks for T Murphy (HT); Niall Crossan for C Orchin (51); Cormac McGettigan for Daire Murphy (53)

Scorers: S Beatty 1-4; T Morgan 0-3; C McGuinness 0-3; Deaglan Murphy 0-2 (2f); Stephen Shannon 0-1; G Walsh 0-1 (1f)

Referee: Mark O’Neill (Armoy)

Dunloy start as favourites but Rossa can spoil the party

Bathshack Senior Hurling Championship Final

Dunloy vs Rossa

Date: Sunday October 10 – Throw in: 3:45pm

Referee: Mark O’Neill (Glen Rovers, Armoy)

Brendan McTaggart previews the Senior Hurling final, tomorrow in Corrigan Park.

16 matches later, thrills and spills, moments of genius and moments of, well, not so genius and we’ve reached the pinnacle.  The summit is in reach for either Rossa or Dunloy on Sunday afternoon with the Volunteer Cup on the line.  Corrigan Park is the host for the first time since 1974, a day Sarsfields will never forget and a day a city side defeated the fancied hurling aristocrats from north Antrim.

If the ‘Premier Club’ are looking for omens, they need look no further.  A year after winning the intermediate title, the Paddies defeated hot favourites Loughgiel in Corrigan as Casement was otherwise ‘occupied’.

For Rossa, this is potentially the dream final.  The possibility of lifting the Volunteer Cup in the front yard of their nearest and dearest rivals certainly adds to the occasion for the Jeremiah’s.  A first final since 2004, another season of building towards their Mecca and Sunday represents the chance to lay to rest the ghost of Chrissy McMahon in the past.

A terrible pun but you know what I’m getting at.

Last year these two sides met in two matches that were everything you want in championship hurling. Intensity, drama, pieces of brilliance and defining moments.  Twice McMahon became the scourge of Rossa, he’ll be hoping to make it a hat-trick tomorrow.

Chrissy McMahon in action during the semi-final win over St John’s

It’s been serene progress for the Belfast men for over two years now.  From winning the All-Ireland Intermediate championship in 2015, it’s taken longer than some might have expected for them to kick on but they have returned to be a force in Antrim hurling once more.  Making the senior decider ahead of their rivals on the Whiterock Road despite the Johnnies knocking the door with relentless consistency for a number of years.

There is an awakening in the west of Ireland’s second city.

Rossa are a team who have the ability to mix their game plan up but effectively play to their strengths. Aodhan O’Brien and Gerard Walsh have both improved immeasurably while playing for the county, Stephen Beatty and Michael Armstrong are two powerhouses and players for the big occasion while in a recent podcast I described Deaglan Murphy to being the hurling equivalent to the Duracel Bunny.  An incredible engine and endless desire with moments of class.  An accurate free taker while his brothers Daire and Tiarnan are both livewires in the forward line.

Michael Armstrong in action during the semi-final win over Cusehendall.

Where Colly Murphy and his backroom team start Armstrong is another massive question.  He changed the game against Cushendall on the edge of the Ruairi’s square but if Cushendall were to play that game another 10 times, I doubt they would concede the goals they did and the manner in which they were fashioned.  A team renowned for it’s defensive strength struggled with high ball that would be bread and butter for them on any given Sunday.  Just not that Sunday.

Armstrong is a ball winner and an absolute power house of a player.  For me, his best position is half forward and winning primary possession but it’s a great headache for the Rossa management to have.  

Adrian Kinneally has made a top impact since making the move from Cork and his presence in the Rossa defence has brought a calmness and composure among the mayhem of championship hurling.  A ball winner, a ball carrier with a good hurling brain.  All the hallmarks of a great defender.

The reigning champions come in off the back of another unbeaten championship round robin, meaning the last team to defeat them was their friends from ‘across the sheugh’ in the 2018 semi-final.  Loughgiel ambushing the Cuchullains but Sunday will be their 15th Antrim championship match since that defeat.  Not a bad stat and when you break it down, you can see why the men from the Cuchullain Village have been instilled as favourites once again.

Ryan Elliott has produced moments of brilliance between the sticks for them this year while his poc outs have top drawer.  His penalty save to deny Shea Shannon in the semi-final underlines his credentials as the best in the business in Antrim.  

Dunloy will be without the services of Phelim Duffin who has broken a bone in the last day out so Gregory O’Kane could draft in one of Kevin McKeague, Eamon Smyth or Oran Quinn to the starting 15.

The emergence of Aaron Crawford to the half back line has been a find for Dunloy while Conor Kinsella is one of the best man markers in the game right now.  The midfield pairing of Keelan Molloy and Paul Shiels has evolved into something special for the Cuchullains with Molloy developing into an incredible hurler and ‘Shorty’ produces top performances no matter the stage or what’s happening around him.  If Dunloy are struggling, he’s the go-to man to get them lifted or help them find an extra gear.

The Dunloy attack is their obvious strength.  Conal Cunning’s progression as a focal point for Gregory O’Kane’s side has been helped with his involvement for the county side while Chrissy McMahon has stepped into the starting 15 in 2021, building on his substitute appearances in 2020 and forming an impressive partnership with Cunning on the inside forward line.

Seaan Elliott in action during the semi-final win over St John’s

Seaan Elliott is the ace in the Dunloy pack.  He knocked over a superb score at the death in last years semi-final before McMahon’s heroics and this year he’s shown all his talents.  Power, trickery and accuracy, all with frightening pace.  He’s a managers dream and a defenders nightmare.  He will roam around the forward line and find space where he can, it will be up to the likes of Ryan McGarry, Shorty, Eoin O’Neill and Ronan Molloy to provide the service for him.

With the Dunloy attack, it’s impossible to stop them so it’s all about restricting.  Rossa will need to stop the supply of ball as much as they can and in doing so, suffocate the middle third.  By doing that, they could leave space in their own half for Dunloy’s forwards to exploit.  It’s the conundrum the Rossa management are faced with.  Stick or twist.  Dunloy will bring a game completely different to what they faced in the semi-final so there could be a couple of positional changes in Rossa’s 15 while I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas Morgan is named in the starting line up, he brings pace and trickery, a directness that could be the answer on Sunday.

I don’t see Dunloy wavering too much from the 15 that started against St John’s with Phelim Duffin’s omission the exception.  Kevin Molloy made a huge impact when he came off the bench in the second half while Deaglan Smith’s performance will have given the Dunloy management something to think about, for sure.

If both sides bring their ‘A’ game, it’s going to be a close contest.  I feel that Rossa now have the tools at their disposal to make one more step, that being said, Dunloy’s experience and knowhow of this occasion should see them through.  My prediction, the Volunteer Cup stays in Dunloy for another year but only by the odd score.