Slaughtneil ready to make the big push for hurling glory

Slaughtneil are a peculiar case, in that there was an upside to losing a football county final. It granted them five exclusively-hurling weeks in which to prepare for Antrim champions Dunloy in the Ulster semi-final.
Slaughtneil ready to make the big push for hurling glory

Slaughtneil's Garald Bradley and Cormac O'Doherty celebrates at the final whistle of the Ulster club final. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Nobody is going to say it out loud, but the chances of a Derry team reaching their first All-Ireland club hurling final were significantly enhanced by the events of November 7 in Celtic Park.

That day, Glen beat their neighbours, Slaughtneil in the county football final.

Slaughtneil are a peculiar case, in that there was an upside to losing a county final. It granted them five exclusively-hurling weeks in which to prepare for Antrim champions Dunloy in the Ulster semi-final.

Armed with a manic intensity, they won by seven points. Afterwards, their goalscorer Brendan Rogers described the week after they lost the football final.

“The football game was on a Sunday and we were back hurling training on the Tuesday,” he revealed.

“The way we have always worked, and it’s probably a good thing as well, after one is over, you just turn over to the next. And the best way to get over a loss like that is just get out again.

“The first night maybe wasn’t our best night of hurling, but we got it out of the system. The joy of it is, you always get your second chance and that was the start of us getting our second chance. For us that was getting the shackles off.”

The shackles remained off for the Ulster final a week later with another seven-point margin over Ballycran. It leaves them 60-odd minutes away from an All-Ireland final.

In Munster, Ballygunner’s form has been nothing short of sensational, capped by their thumping of Kilmallock in the final.

There is talk that manager Darragh O’Sullivan has brought in former Galway star Tony Óg Regan as a performance coach and given all their heartache of Munster finals in 2009, 2015, 2017 and 2019 (nine losing finals in total) they are throwing everything at their bid for an All-Ireland title.

Since the restructuring of the All-Ireland Championships, it falls to this weekend alone when the rest of the country take notice of the state of affairs in Ulster senior hurling.

In Slaughtneil’s case, they have been building at this stage gradually, from their 2-11 to 3-21 beating by Cuala in 2017.

The margin was almost halved the following year when they lost to Na Piarsaigh by seven. After a year out, they came strong against reigning All-Ireland champions, Ballyhale.

“We were in bother. A fair battle,” recalls Michael Fennelly who at that stage was double-jobbing as the Offaly manager and libero at the back for Ballyhale.

“Even up in Newry the environment was different. There was an awful smell of gas or something when we were on the field pucking around beforehand. It’s sort of like someone’s backyard in terms of the size of the field.

“Dressing rooms were upstairs, everything was unusual and very different.”

What unfolded that day was an epic. Ballyhale lorried ball on top of Colin Fennelly and got a goal in the first half but were just one point ahead at the break.

With two minutes to go, Brendan Rogers caught a Slaughtneil puckout, sailed through the challenges and fired to the net to cut the lead to two.

“For the last 20 minutes they started to come back into it, the crowd started to get a lot louder and we were in a dogfight,” says Fennelly.

“Ideally, I would have liked to have played Slaughtneil in an open field. I don’t know if it would have been a different scenario, but our boys, you would have seen them in Croke Park and a big field to play in normally suits us quite well.

“But it was a great experience on our side. We came out with a win but we really earned it that day.”

There was no chance of them underestimating the opposition. In the last 10 years, only Loughgiel and Cushendall have made it from Ulster to an All-Ireland final, but the teams paired up in the semi-final don’t tend to break out the cigars either.

“Over the years I would have seen a lot of those semi-finals where Ulster teams would have played the likes of the Portumnas, the Leinster and Munster champions and, my God above, there has never been too much between them,” Fennelly states. “You could see the likes of Loughgiel coming through and getting out of the fire in the semi-final and going on to win the final. There would certainly be huge respect from the other champions for northern teams.

“That’s genuine because there are pockets of really good hurling up north. Where they just play hurling, and there’s a serious culture, a serious history.”

Few have culture in place quite like Slaughtneil.

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