Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship final
Dunloy (Antrim) v Sleacht Néill (Derry)
Sunday, Pairc Esler Newry, 3pm
By Dan O’ Muirigh
In an Ulster championship traditionally won by Antrim teams, Sleacht Néill stand as Derry’s only winners of the competition and look to claim their third title as they take on favourites Dunloy on Sunday.
Back-to-back winners in 2016 and 2017, Sleacht Néill were defeated by Ballycran last year as they were stopped in their pursuit of three in a row.
Sleacht Néill marksman Mark McGuigan has revealed the impact this had on his side, and how the team regrouped after that disappointment in preparation for the 2019 season.
“Maybe a month or so after we played Ballycran last year, the players called a meeting and we just spoke about how we needed to start enjoying our hurling again and to go out and get a bit of pride back.
“We just wanted to put a bit of pride back in Sleacht Néill hurling and then after that results might start taking care of themselves. We put a big emphasis on numbers at training, we’ve had 30-plus men most nights this year. I know it might be cliche’d, but we did genuinely take it one game at a time.”
Staying true to this approach has served the Derry kingpins well, who won their seventh consecutive county championship when they defeated an emerging Dungiven team.
“Dungiven are really pushing us in Derry at the minute,” McGuigan conceded. “They’re up with the top teams in Ulster at the minute too, they’re probably just unlucky they’ve come at the same time as us and we’re just slightly ahead of them.
“We’ve got a really good management team, a good mix of youth and experience and taking in a few new players each year helps you stay ahead.”
Sleacht Néill did not make the same mistake as they did last year in Ulster, expertly putting away Middleton in the semi-final with a comfortable 1-17 to 0-8 victory to book their place in Sunday’s decider.
However, McGuigan gave an insight into the Slaughtneil mindset, with manager Mickey McShane expecting more of his players.
“It was a big one getting a good win. Mickey wasn’t happy after the match. He thought we probably should have performed a bit better. I think the problem was we hadn’t played since the Dungiven game four weeks ago and there was that wee small bit of rustiness there but semi finals are all about winning and we got the result, that was all that mattered.”
One of the highlights of the Sleacht Néill hurlers’ recent success was victory over Dunloy in the 2017 Ulster semi-final. However, both teams have changed since then and McGuigan is fully aware of the difficulty of the task ahead.
“Both teams will have changed a bit [since]. They have got a lot of young boys who’ve filled out a bit. A lot of them have bulked up. Their younger players who were 18,19 are now 20, 21. On the other hand, we’ve improved as well.
“It’s on the day. They’re everyone’s favourites to win Ulster. There’s pressure on them to deliver that, there’s pressure on us to get back to where we were. I think there’s an equal amount of pressure on both teams and it’s all on the day.
“We’re under no illusions that they’re massive favourites and that it’s a massive task. It will probably will be our toughest ever game that we’ve had in Ulster but we know the task ahead and hopefully we’ll give it our best shot.”
Despite this, it’s pressure that Sleacht Néill have become used to as a club and exactly the type of game that McGuigan and co will relish a return to.
“The mood in the camp is pretty good. We haven’t really got any injury concerns so we’re going in with a clean bill of health. Everybody is raring to get at it.
“We missed out on getting to the final last year so there’s a bit of a buzz about the club the last couple of weeks.
“We sort of got used to the last few years, but it’s just good to get a bit of a buzz back about the place.”
Sunday’s game is another part of the remarkable Sleacht Néill story, with unprecedented success across all three codes over the last number of years.
“It’s really special, to be honest,” McGuigan admitted. “There’s a lot of boys on our team who play county hurling and football, university level and school teams, and they’ve got success there. But I think it’s different for club.
“There would be sisters playing in camogie games, cousines, neighbours, all that. There’s a real community feel about it. It helps bring everyone together when you’re winning, on the big days out in Ulster where the supporters travel to support you. It gives people a lift in the community and it’s great to be part of.”