Antrim “forgot about the game” such was the hype ahead of the 1989 All-Ireland final, says Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton, the All-Star defender who played in that heavy defeat to Tipperary.
McNaughton’s bigger regret is the narrow 1991 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kilkenny. He vows Antrim would have been “a different animal” had they met Tipp in another decider.
The win over Offaly in the ’89 semi-final is regarded as one of the game’s biggest shocks but it didn’t come as a surprise to the Antrim players, McNaughton added.
Speaking to Anthony Daly on the Irish Examiner GAA podcast, McNaughton said: “We’d beaten Offaly twice that year already. It wasn’t a shock to us. We went to Croke Park that day expecting to beat Offaly.
“Offaly clapped us off, gave us a guard of honour. I’ve never seen it before. And to this day I’ve a soft spot for Offaly.
“But before we got into the changing room, people were saying it’ll be great just to play in an All-Ireland final.
“You had reporters phoning you up and TV cameras. You were shaking hands with the bishop and politicians.
“We forgot about the match, we were carried away. We had nobody to keep us grounded. We were lambs to the slaughter.”
Antrim were beaten by 4-24 to 3-9 but were on the cusp of a revenge mission two years later when McNaughton levelled in the dying seconds against Kilkenny.
“If we had got to an All-Ireland final that year we’d have been a different animal. A couple of mistakes cost us. That was our best performance in Croke Park, I felt.
“I levelled it and if you watch the clip I’m running by the ref and I ask him how much is left and he says ‘it’s over Sambo’. And he played on for another three minutes. But these things happen. We lacked the wee bit of cuteness.”
Antrim lost by two points. But despite some near misses on the club front also, with Cushendall, McNaughton is content with his eight Antrim club titles and six Ulster county medals.
“I don’t feel a failure because I haven’t won an All-Ireland. I know there’s guys with pocketfuls of All-Irelands who weren’t as good a hurler as me. And I also know there’s better hurlers than me who never won an All-Star.
“My success is I played the game I loved for as long as I could and I played against some of the best people that ever graced a hurling field. That’s success.
“There’s thousands of us out there who never won an All-Ireland.”
McNaughton paid tribute to manager Jim Nelson for forging a unity in those Antrim sides, overcoming old club divisions.
“Whenever you went to county training you weren’t allowed to do a drill with your clubmen. You weren’t allowed to wear your club jersey. Wee things like that.
“When I started, before Nelson, you would go to a county match and you’d have to pay for your wife or girlfriend. Nelson made sure your family got in for nothing and got them a cup of tea. Made everything more professional.”
And he opens up on life during the Troubles, on being constantly subjected to checks by the British Army and UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment).
“You were always stopped, always hassled. Every time you went to training you had to leave early because you were going to be stopped and held up for an hour.
“You’d have to stand on the side of the road in the pissing rain. They’d pull your gear out of the boot and throw it on the road and it’d be wet going to training.
“You had to vary your route going to work because we were classed as legitimate targets. And our only passion was we loved hurling. That’s all we were guilty of.
“I remember Jim Nelson having men protecting us while we trained. Thankfully the generation growing up now have no idea.
“It was just a fact of life you weren’t allowed to be seen to do anything Irish. I’m as Irish as Anthony Daly, I believe that and I can’t help that.”
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