Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship final
Dunloy (Antrim) v Sleacht Néill (Derry)
Sunday, Pairc Esler Newry, 3pm
BY DAN O MUIRIGH
Dunloy find themselves back in an Ulster final for the first time since 2009, but are now only one game away from equalling Cushendall’s record of 11 Ulster Championship titles.
Since 1990, the North Antrim side have emerged as one of the province’s most successful hurling clubs, with 13 Antrim titles, ten Ulster titles and four All-Ireland final appearances to account for.
Nestled amongst this period of success was the incredible feat of the four in a row Antrim and Ulster titles between 2000 and 2003, six in total during the noughties, while the side have claimed two of the last three Antrim titles.
Dunloy stalwart Paul Shiels has been around long enough to appreciate what this means, and praised the effect this success has had on his community.
“Dunloy people are mad about hurling. Every year we want to be winning the Championship and get back playing at the highest level. It’s not easy to win Championships.
“Everything in Dunloy is geared around the GAA and it’s great for the community to still be playing at this time of year.
“It’s nice, this time of year, to be still involved in the hurling. The GAA’s great in the community. It gives everybody something to look forward to and gives the people of Dunloy another day out.
Dunloy will find in Sleacht Néill a formidable yet familiar opponent. Sleacht Néill have claimed seven Derry Championship titles on the bounce and were consecutive Ulster champions in 2016 and 2017.
Sleacht Néill ended Dunloy’s provincial hopes en route to their 2017 success with a 1-18 to 2-8 victory in the semi-final. Regardless of the result of the 2017 encounter, Shiels recognises the threat that Sleacht Néill pose and this is Dunloy’s sole focus heading into the game.
“Sleacht Néill are a very experienced side, they have won countless Derry championships in a row, so they are a battle-hardened side coming into the Ulster Championship.
“It’s a massive test for us. I don’t know if the last meeting two years ago has any bearing on it, but they are a physical side with plenty of experience. It’ll be a big challenge for us.”
Despite the obvious challenges the Antrim champions will face, it is a game that Shiels and his team-mates are eagerly anticipating.
“We’re excited. We’re delighted we won Antrim and we now get a chance to take on Sleacht Néill in the Ulster Championship. As a player, it’s where you want to be.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’ve worked hard this year and we’re just looking forward to it.”
Dunloy booked their place in this Sunday’s final with an impressive rout of Down Champions Ballycran in the last four, with a finishing scoreline of 2-23 to 0-12.
While it is obvious proof of Dunloy’s prowess and ability, Shiels brushed away any influence the performance may have on the decider with Sleacht Néill. For the former Antrim star, it’s simply on to the next one.
“It was one of those games where we started well and things fell into place for us. We were expecting Ballycran to come out of the blocks quickly. We racked up a big score but that’s parked, that’s done and dusted and it’ll have no impact on the final.”
Part of Dunloy’s success over the past number of years has been their strength in depth, and the mixture of youth and experience that characterises their team. Shiels, himself one of the sides’ most experienced and accomplished players, is adamant that this versatility is required to compete at the top.
“All teams at this level and wanting to be successful have to have a good panel. You hear people talking about it all the time at county level, it’s very similar at club level. It’s a 20-man game. That’s what it takes to win big matches.
“Sometimes it doesn’t happen for some men on a particular day, maybe the way a game pans out you need something different off the bench. It’s very important that your subs are ready and can do a job for you.”
An indicator of this in practice was Dunloy’s strong finish against Cushendall in this year’s Antrim Championship final, with the likes of Seaan Elliot, Ronan Molloy and James McKeague making an impressive impact from the bench to help close the game out.
“The boys came on and the way the team was set up, the boys’ role was changed. It wasn’t as if they were subs really. They came on and done the job they were asked to do before the match. It’s just their role on the day. We’re lucky enough it worked out like that.”
With a resilient challenge awaiting in Sleacht Néill, it will be Dunloy’s talent across the board that can help them claim their eleventh Ulster Championship title.