Back in early October 2017, Slaughtneil and Dunloy met in their first ever clash in the Ulster hurling Championship.
The two clubs tossed for home advantage for the semi-final, and the game was hosted in Owenbeg, making things very convenient for the Derry side.
On the day, the official attendance was called at 6,142. However, the stewards were overwhelmed with demand with a huge crowd gathered outside the gates prior to throw-in. To prevent any panic, they just flung the gates open and away in went everyone. It’s possible the attendance could have been significantly more.
How can it be, that the average attendance of a Munster senior club is almost doubled by a game in the supposed hurling backwater that is Ulster?
To put it into context, the recent Munster semi-final between All-Ireland champions Ballygunnar and Na Piarsaigh, came in at 3,321.
Such figures demand closer scrutiny. And the most obvious element to this is that, in the absence of an Ulster county hurling final, Slaughtneil and Dunloy has become the biggest draw in Ulster hurling.
As competitive as Antrim have proved in recent league campaigns with home games in Corrigan Park, meetings between these two clubs have proved to be the great gathering of the hurling Clanns throughout the province.
The question hangs there in front of us – is this a one-off phenomenon, and how can the Ulster Council and wider GAA jump all over this fixture to spread the appeal of the small ball in the province?
“The first thing you have to be grateful for is the current situation. I have never seen more media coverage around an Ulster club hurling final than this year currently,” says Slaughtneil’s Chrissy McKaigue.
“To me, that speaks volumes for Dunloy and Slaughtneil in terms of what they are bringing to the table as that can only bode well for Ulster hurling. As we both know, it needs all the positivity in terms of media coverage and publicity it can possibly garner.
“It’s proven that the Dunloy and Slaughtneil tag does bring a fair few neutral spectators through the gate. So again, we have to look at it, as it is; it’s a big improvement having us and Dunloy at the top table as there are a serious number of people going to these games.”
And then, he comes to the nub.
“I think when you have any north Antrim team involved, they bring a huge following anyway because they are so passionate about hurling.
“From what I see at the minute, Ulster hurling is still not getting the full support that it possibly could.
“Hopefully Sunday is a spectacle. That can only entice more people. There is nothing like that to have games in the shop window. Like I said, it is gathering a fair bit of attention at the minute.”
Dunloy manager Gregory O’Kane has always been vocal about the need to spread hurling beyond the traditional powerbases. He is far from living in a bubble, despite being in his eighth season in charge of his own club.
“The more people we could have playing, the most prosperous the game becomes,” he explains.
“And that’s the challenge for the counties. Even Antrim I would feel, the population that could be playing, there should be more. And are we doing enough on that?”
Is there? Enough being done?
“No. No. There’s never enough being done,” he answers emphatically.
“You never want to criticise anybody who is doing it, because it is easy to criticise. It’s the easiest thing in the world.
“I just think at times, we don’t do enough. Even in our own county, we could be doing more. But across the board in Ulster, the game needs more exposure in the schools. There’s no question about it, the more you have playing…
“Sure, look at the Limerick model. They got far more people in the city playing, and it got more involved in the game and the rest is history now with where they are at.”
For now, there is a game to be played. The wider debate will be held. But just don’t expect all players to get involved. Some still prefer the time-honoured method of ‘keeping the head down’, such as Dunloy’s forward, Conal ‘Coby’ Cunning.
“Whoever comes to the match, that is for the media or the pundits to discuss,” he states.
“As a player, you don’t care if there are 3,000 people, or three people and their dog at that game. We just hurl away.”