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.”

Shiels: “We’re obsessed with hurling”

Brendan McTaggart speaks with Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels ahead of Sunday’s Senior Hurling Final at Corrigan Park

Paul Shiels is a man who has been there and done that in the green and gold of Dunloy.  On Sunday, he goes into the breaches one more time for his club and he was as relaxed as ever when we spoke with him at the Cuchullains media night.

In the confines of their academy, ‘Shorty’ stood with hurl and sliotar.  Pacing up and down, taking touches and waving the wand.  Everything with precision.  The touch of an angel, the determination of a gladiator and the class of the greats.  Shorty is the spiritual leader in the Dunloy camp and he told us he relishes training in the dark evenings and wet nights: “Every season we set out, this is where we’re trying to get to.  It’s nice to be still training at this time of year, you know if you’re still training you’ve gone deep in the championship.  You never get tired of county finals.”

This season has been a strenuous one for the Cuchullains.  With nine players involved with Darren Gleeson’s county squad, Dunloy’s league campaign wasn’t littered with the performances or results of years gone by.  Shiels said: “It’s been a difficult year in terms of our squad.  Without the county players and obviously football as well but its gave us the chance to look at our whole panel then come championship, the county players come back in, it’s only really then that you see where you’re at as a full panel of players.”  Shorty continued: “We were coming into those first couple of matches trying to feel our way into the championship and the group stage allows you to do that. Obviously you want to top your group to get that extra week break but the championship in all has been good this year.  There’s been some good games and Rossa obviously upsetting Cushendall was a big scalp for them.  

“It’s been an interesting championship and I’d say the best two teams are in the final.”

In the semi-final at Dunsilly, Dunloy dug into their reserves to get over the line against a spirited St John’s side.  As the rains thundered from the heavens, Dunloy did enough.  It wasn’t with the flamboyant style of three weeks previous where the Cuchullains were in top form but as Shorty told us, they were in an unusual situation coming into the semi’s: “Sometimes in a semi-final, it’s just about getting through.  We had played St John’s three weeks previous and it was a difficult game to prepare for.  We beat them and sometimes you learn more from defeat than in victory.  They probably took more from that game than we did.  

“We were just trying to go out and do a professional job.  The conditions were tough, no doubt about it but we got the scores we needed to get in front and effectively shut up shop to see out the game.”

Since that semi-final, seven of the Dunloy team were involved in the footballers pivotal game against Glenavy.  The Cuchullains gained the result they needed to make the semi-final in the ‘big ball’ once again.  Far from ideal preparations coming into a county final but Shorty was looking at the positive side of the fixture scheduling: “It’s been a continuation of how our year has been, trying to dovetail the hurling and the football.  We did a bit of recovery and the footballers prepared for their championship as best they could and go again.  It’s a good distraction in a way.  They’re winning games and it brings a momentum, nothing beats that winning feeling and it’s good their continuing to win and bring that wee bit of success back into the squad.  It can be a distraction of you let it be but if you manage it the right way you can use it to your advantage.”

Last year, these two sides played in two epic contests.  Dunloy snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat in the second round of group matches at Rossa Park while it took a late Chrissy McMahon point to see off the Jeremiah’s after a thrilling semi-final at Dunsilly: “We’ve played Rossa a few times in last year’s championship but every year is a new year and those matches will have no bearing on Sunday’s final.  We’re just preparing for Rossa as best we can.  It’s another county final and they’ll be looking at it the same way.  I’m excited for Sunday and really looking forward to it.

“They’re improving as a team and as a group of players, I don’t think we can take anything from last year if we’re honest.  In their team they can play a number of players in different positions, we’re just trying to prepare for the game as best we can and not get too hung up on last year.  I’m sure they’ll not either.  They’ll be wanting a different outcome.”

With Ballycastle being the preferred choice of venue since 2012, with the exception of Dunloy in 2014, the senior decider makes a return to the City with Corrigan Park playing host.  Shorty told us he feels it adds to the occasion: “It’s nice to be heading back up to the City for a county final.  It has a buzz about it as it was Casement.  After the redevelopment of Corrigan, it’s a great venue.  We’re genuinely looking forward to playing there and I’m sure Rossa are too.  The pitch is first class and the ground is one of the best about.”

With the buzz and hype around the village going up a couple of notches in the past week, Shorty said they try to embrace what it means to the village but always mindful of the goal set at the start of the year: “We’re obsessed with hurling.  Our main aim is to get to a county final and obviously try and win it.  You become a bit oblivious to what’s going on around the village until county final day and the flags go up.  It’s all anyone wants to talk about it but it’s a nice time of year to be involved.  You know if you’re training in the dark evenings, it’s where you want to be.”

Beattie hoping to make memories that will last a lifetime

By Kevin Herron 

Stephen Beattie recalls being a 12-year-old boy in Rossa House back in 2004- the last time Rossa clinched the Volunteer Cup with a victory over Loughgeil at Casement Park. 

17-years on from Jim Connolly receiving the cup and bringing it back to their Falls Road base to celebrate, the 29-year-old is hoping to guide his side to Championship honours against Dunloy at Corrigan Park on Sunday afternoon (3.45 throw-in). 

Beattie describes the memories of 2004 giving him goosebumps that will always stick with him and said that doing it on Sunday would stay with him for the rest of his life. 

“In 2004 I was 12-years-old, and I remember being in Rossa house for the celebrations” he recalled. 

“I remember Jim Connolly lifting the trophy and I remember them singing their song- Pump it up- as well. they’re memories that will always stick with me and come Sunday- even thinking about it gives me goosebumps. 

“Come Sunday, if I’m the person that’s lifting that trophy, it’s going to be something that sticks with me for the rest of my life and something I’ll be proud of. Even to captain this team into the final is a serious proud moment for myself and my family”. 

Beattie was part of the 2015 side that won the All-Ireland Intermediate Hurling Championship at Croke Park. 

He believes that win was a steppingstone for the club, and they are now bearing fruits from the success. 

“You’d think we were on a six-year programme but it’s just the way it’s happened” Beattie reflects. 

“Since 2004 our club has disappeared in terms of competing in Senior Championships. 2015 was a good steppingstone when we won the Intermediate, we knew we had to drop down. I keep saying this is just the hard work paying off. 

“All the buy in we’ve had and if you look at the team – I’d say there is 13 starting players that are still in our panel. It’s starting to bear fruits of the Intermediate, so fingers crossed it continues”. 

Speaking alongside team-mates Gerard Walsh, Ciaran Orchin and manager Colly Murphy during Tuesday evenings press night at the Dub- Beattie was glad to get the media interviews out of the way and focus on Sunday/

“I just want to get all the interviews out of the way because now I can focus” he admits. 

“It’s easy to say to boys- don’t be getting involved in the occasion, but you need to enjoy the occasion as well. they don’t come around that often, you enjoy the build-up but come Sunday it’s another game. Throw the ball in, and everything goes out the window, game plans go out the window in the final. We’ll get everything out of the way, we’ll enjoy our training and see where we’re at on Sunday”. 

The Rossa captain believes the semi-final comeback against Cushendall shows maturity from the previous 12-months when they lost out by a single point to Sunday’s opponents Dunloy and is hoping that it won’t be another nail bitter. 

“I remember being heartbroken last year when Dunloy scored the point to win” Beattie acknowledged. 

“I remember being heartbroken when Paddy Magill scored that goal because I was like- this is happening to us again. But at the same time, I turned my back and I run, and I knew it wasn’t us. 

“I did have a feeling we would sneak it and I think that does show the maturity of the panel. In the past Rossa would have said- this isn’t for us- whereas now, we’re actually stepping back up and saying- we’re not messing about anymore. Fingers crossed it doesn’t come that close to it on Sunday”.