Slaughtneil v Loughgiel (Sunday, Athletic Grounds, 2.30pm)
A week can be a long time in politics but for a club like Slaughtneil, a year in the GAA can rattle by.
Last October brought the pain of an extra-time defeat in the Ulster club final, pipped at the post by their recent bête-noirs Cushendall. New year, new focus, same hunger.
The Derry champions have dragged themselves up off the canvass and readily donned the gloves for another crack at the title.
“After the disappointment of last year we said we’d do everything we can to get back in the Ulster final and try and atone for last year’s defeat,” explains manager Michael McShane. “But we had a lot of games to play before we got that chance. We had a Derry championship to win; we had an Ulster semi-final to win. We’ve done that now and next up is the biggest job of all.”
A well-conditioned but clearly under-cooked Slaughtneil recently overcame the bullish challenge of Armagh champions, Middletown, in a hard-hitting semi-final in Newry. And given that as many as nine of that side togged out on Sunday in the county football final win over Loup, McShane finds himself once again charting an onerous course in the busy waters that Ulster’s most successful current dual club must once again navigate.
“With the programme of games Slaughtneil have between the football and the hurling, we haven’t had any chance this last nine or 10 weeks to play any challenge games other than in-house games which are always good. The guys always bring a lot of intensity to those games. But nothing beats going and playing opposition, tough opposition like the Middletown team we played in the semi-final. That game will stand to us and bring us forward a bit.”
Sunday’s blue chip opponents, Loughgiel, will arrive at the Athletic grounds in great shape, with wins over Ballycastle, Cushendall and Ballygalget quite rightly tagging the Antrim kingpins as favourites once more.
“We’re going to be massive underdogs,” agreed McShane. “Loughgiel have dominated for five or six years. They’ve won All Irelands, they’ve won, I think, four Ulsters and they’re back with a vengeance this year. There’s a really steely determination about them. I watched the Antrim final against Cushendall and they were very, very hungry. They had a great desire to win. They’ll want to get back to the All Ireland series, there’s no doubt about that. They’re a serious team. It’s going to be a massive challenge for us.”
Slaughtneil cruised to their fifth county hurling title in a row last month but they hunger for more than the Father Collins Cup at Emmet Park. No Derry club has ever tasted provincial glory at the highest club level, but this current Robert Emmet’s side has been knocking on the door impatiently in recent years.
Indeed, the additions of several of the club’s all conquering minor team and the return of a tried and tested warrior has further fortified an already robust first fifteen. Teenagers Shane McGuigan, Eanna Cassidy, Ruairi McCartney and Brian Devine have all been successfully blooded this season while the reintroduction of key man Gerald Bradley has also been roundly lauded by his manager.
“Gerald’s back with us. He had a tough year; he done his cruciate last year and it’s been a long road to recovery for him. We’re delighted to have Gerald back. He’s a star hurler. Again he’s a guy that the Middletown game will have stood to him. We brought on Brian Cassidy there and Brian probably brought the level of our play up the way.
“There’s serious competition for places in the team. Nobody can slack off or afford to under perform or they’ll not get their jersey the next time.
“We’ve brought in three or four of last year’s minors and they’ve not let us down. They’re firm fixtures in the team and we push on this weekend.”