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In Focus: Shane McNaughton – the final act

ONE MORE STEP...Cushendall's Shane McNaughton is chasing All-Ireland glory

ONE MORE STEP…Cushendall’s Shane McNaughton is chasing All-Ireland glory

“My father once described me to the rest of our Cushendall senior team as a fireman. He said, “One week you’re f*cking on, and the next week you’re f*cking off’. The whole team started laughing, as did I. He then said, “Laugh away Shane, you won’t be f*cking laughing when your 30-years-old and realise that your chance is gone.”
Shane McNaughton, Gaelic Life column, January 2014

SHANE McNaughton may be heading to New York at the end of this month to pursue a career in acting, but before the 28-year old goes there’s one tiny loose end to be sorted – an All-Ireland final with Limerick side Na Piarsaigh on Saint Patrick’s day. Niall McCoy caught up with the Cushendall player ahead of the biggest game in the club’s history.

Niall McCoy: What’s a typical Saint Patrick’s Day for yourself, would you usually go down and watch the All-Ireland Club finals?
Shane McNaughton: Me and my Da (Terence) would go down for a day out. I don’t think I have missed one this 10 years. I remember going down to all the Dunloy games when they were in the finals. I know it’s a really good day from the point of view of the spectators.

NMcC: I’m sure Cushendall missing out on a final appearance nine times in the past was in the back of your mind every time you were in one. It’s been a long time coming, but how does it feel to finally get over that semi-final step?
SMcN: From my own playing experience, the two semi-finals I played in before this year, against Loughrea and De La Salle, were hard to take. Even watching my Da and those players, ’99 against St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield. Seeing Cushendall teams coming so close, going to replays, I suppose a lot of people in the town thought they would never see it in their lifetime. It’s great for them as well as us.

NMcC: Cushendall is a club with so many legendary figures, but this current crop has already surpassed them. That must feel good?
SMcN: It does. It’s also a very dangerous way of thinking. After the semi-final against Sarsfields we were on such a high. It was the first time the club has ever got past that stage and it was such a big moment for Cushendall. For the spectators they should revel in that fact and go down to the match and enjoy it, but we, as players, can’t get into that way of thinking. At the end of the day we have won absolutely nothing. We have gone one step further than we ever have but if you don’t win it there’s little point in getting there.

NMcC: How did you manage to finally reach the final?
SMcN: All you can put that down to is experience from the players. The younger players from last year have come on another step too. Last year was just a year too early for the development of this team. A lot of the appreciation has to go to the managers, even the ones before John (McKillop). I’m not just saying that because my Da was managing us last year and training us this year, there’s been excellent development going on for a few years and we’re just getting the fruits of it now.

NMcC: You beat Sarsfields by 12 points in the semi-final, were you surprised just how easy it was?
SMcN: Definitely. Twelve points in an All-Ireland semi-final, for anybody to be winning by that is a surprise. Sarsfields are a very young team too and they’re at a different stage than we are. Maybe it was just a few years too soon for them, but we can’t read too much into the result because Na Piarsaigh are a completely different animal altogether. There’s established county hurlers there and they have been about, they’ve been in All-Ireland semi-finals before. They are a lot bigger, a lot stronger than what we have faced so far.

NMcC: In that semi-final, Eoghan Campbell leveled a Sarsfield player in the first minute and it really set the tone. How important is to see players leading like that?
SMcN: It’s especially important to see players like Eoghan doing that as he is one of the younger ones. It was a great lift because it wasn’t as if it was the likes of (Neil) McManus or (Arron) Graffin or one of those players. You have boys who aren’t as established as they are but are every bit as confident and have the same ability.

NMcC: Cushendall played Cork in a challenge match at the start of the New Year that was very hard-hitting, how important was it to get that sort of physical challenge heading into the All-Ireland series and will that carry into the All-Ireland final?
SMcN: Any match we have been playing, friendly or competitive, it has been pissing down and it’s been a mucky affair. They have been hard matches to get through. I suppose if it’s sunny on Saint Patrick’s Day and the pitch is good we haven’t really experienced that, but we will be ready. The way we came through the Antrim Championship and the Ulster Championship can only help the team, coming from behind the whole time. We have definitely shown great character and that adds to the belief within the team.

NMcC: Is it a worry that the Croke Park pitch will be immaculate for the final? You aren’t used to playing on a hard pitch.
SMcN: It wouldn’t be so much as a worry, it’s probably just a personal thing about how people deal with the day, the weather. I don’t think the weather or pitch will impact us, if anything it’s the occasion could get to some boys. We are all level headed enough though, and we know that it is just a hurling match and you need to go out and enjoy it. At the same time you stay composed and you have a job to do and our job isn’t finished.

NMcC: Na Piarsaigh had a different kind of semi-final to Cushendall, needing extra-time to get the better of Oulart-the-Ballagh. What are you expecting from the Limerick side?
SMcN: There are Allstars in that team; we have no Allstars in our team. I think what we do have is a good work ethic which has been built into us over the last few years. That’s something we really have been working on, the character of our team. Before Cushendall teams might have faded away and that’s something we have worked on to avoid and that’s showing. The type of players we’re coming up against, it’s obviously going to be the hardest match we’ve played and on the biggest stage. I can guarantee you though that every single one of our players are looking forward to it.

NMcC: You have had some serious injury problems over the last few years so how are you enjoying getting out there and being able to play in these big games?
SMcN: At the start of the year it was hard enough but I’m just managing things a lot better now. I don’t know how long I’m going to be playing for. The weight sessions have been replaced by yoga and stuff like that. I’m not putting as much pressure on the body so it can handle it. I’m grand, fit enough and raring to go.

NMcC: You penned a column in Gaelic Life for a while but stepped away to focus more on your hurling. Has that helped?
SMcN: I enjoyed doing that column, I love to try new things and I love a wee challenge. I felt that I wasn’t doing it justice. I was playing away and I didn’t like talking about other teams while I was still playing. There are a lot more qualified people than me that can express their views and it probably wasn’t right time for me. I really did enjoy writing it though.

NMcC: speaking of columnists, in the Irish News Aaron Kernan, who knows a thing or two about club finals, gave Cushendall one line of advice – ‘play the game, not the occasion’, but a lot of the players do have big game experience?
SMcN: In a game like this you’re not so much coming up against the opposition, you’re coming up against yourself. Once you get to this stage it’s good teams, the fitness levels are going to be similar, there’s not going to be much difference in hurling or fitness. It will come down to who is mentally strong enough and who is more focused. That comes under the category of playing the game and not the occasion. It would be very easy to go into Croke Park, the biggest game any of us have ever played in or probably ever will play in, and let emotions come into it. It’s being able to handle that, that’s something that has been reinforced.

NMcC: The picture of manager John McKillop on his knees celebrating at the full-time whistle in the All-Ireland semi-final was excellent. How big of an impact has he had on the team this year?
SMcN: The whole management team have been great and have really involved the players. It’s not that they have let them make the decisions but they have allowed the players to contribute and that has made us take responsibility for the team because it is our team. I have been grateful to the managers that have come and gone but they do come and go. Myself, Neil McManus and Graffin and Paddy McGill and boys like that, we have been with each other since we started at u-8s. There’s a great bond there between us and in a situation like this the management makes sure that there’s no stone left unturned so that we can achieve our dreams. We have been playing hurling since we were eight years old and nothing is changing now.

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