BY DAN O’MUIRIGH
DUNLOY will attempt to end a decade wait for an Ulster final appearance when they come up against Down champions Ballycran in their provincial semi-final at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday.
They may sit second on the Ulster roll of honour, but you’d have to go back to 2009 for their last provincial final date when they enjoyed a fivepoint win over this weekend’s opponents.
There is a history then between the clubs and Ballycran should once against provide formidable opposition in Armagh.
The Down side recovered from a defeat against Portaferry with victories over Liatroim and Ballygalget.
They then avenged their loss to Portaferry with an impressive victory in the county decider.
Dunloy boss Gregory O’Kane recognises the challenge that lies ahead for his players this weekend, but it’s a game they are looking forward to.
“Ballycran is a huge game and we’re just looking forward to it. It’s a semi-final of an Ulster Championship, there’s no better place to be in the fourth week of October.
“It is a huge task. They’ll feel they left an Ulster Championship behind them last year. We don’t underestimate the challenge.
“They have huge experience in their side with so many lads playing for Down. So it’s a huge challenge but definitely one we will embrace.”
Dunloy have been excellent so far in navigating their way through what was an extremely competitive Antrim Hurling Championship.
The north Antrim men overcame Cushendall by the bare minimum before a commanding seven-point victory over Rossa secured top spot in Group One. A three-point victory over Loughgiel Shamrocks in the semi-final set up a replay with holders Cushendall in the final.
A late rally and a brace of goals from youngster Seaan Elliot secured victory for Dunloy in an extremely tight and tense affair, the Cuchulainn’s recording a 3-16 to 2-15 victory and claiming their 13th county title success.
“We’re delighted to win a tough Antrim Championship. Antrim Championships aren’t easy won, so for the group it’s fantastic,” O’Kane continued.
“We’re just looking forward to an Ulster campaign now, particularly against Ballycran.”
For O’Kane, the experience of winning a county championship of that difficulty provides invaluable preparation for the provincial championship.
“You can’t create that at training, with the quality of the games and the tempo of championship hurling,” he said.
“We’re delighted to come out of the right side of it in tough games like that. It is as good as preparation as you are going to get for an Ulster semi-final. There’s no substitute for playing.”
The history books will show that Dunloy last won the Antrim Championship in 2017 but fell short in their Ulster campaign with a disappointing 1-18 to 2-8 defeat to Derry champions Slaughtneil. The Derry men went on to win Ulster comfortably, but this is not something O’Kane and the group will be dwelling on.
“Whatever happened in ‘17 happened,” he said. “This year, we took every game as it came. You can only look one way and that’s forward. We’re taking each game as it comes. We are enjoying each week, each month, and hopefully staying involved as long as we can.”
Since that success two years ago, Dunloy have injected an exciting brand of youth into their ranks with the likes of Conal Cunning, Seaan Elliot and Keelan Molloy establishing themselves as key players.
O’Kane was full of praise for the effect this has had on the team, one that was already filled with county players and a raft of experience through the likes of Paul Shiels and Nicky McKeague.
“We’ve a nice balance of youth and experience. That’s been the whole thing, getting them to gel with each other and developing them into a team. You test yourself by winning Antrim Championships.
“We’re a young side and I suppose every day is a learning day, but every day is an exciting day at the same time.”
As manager of a club with the history and prestige of Dunloy, O’Kane is cognisant of what it means to be involved at this stage of the season.
“Coming from a club like Dunloy, it’s fantastic. Hurling is everything to everybody and it’s just fantastic to be involved. As a group, we want to learn, we want to grow and experience these big days. We’re just looking forward to it.”