Slaughtneil's attack to see them past Middletown in Ulster Club SHC semi-final
AIB Ulster Club Senior Hurling Championship semi-final: Slaughtneil v Middletown (tomorrow, 2.30pm, Pairc Esler)
OCTOBER chaos is something that Slaughtneil have almost come to expect.
County hurling champions for the fifth year in a row and senior football finalists for the third year in a row, their vast array of dual players have become accustomed to playing big games week-on-week.
This weekend it’s Middletown, followed by a meeting with the Loup next Sunday before a potential Ulster hurling final the following week again. And on it might go.
Neither Derry nor Armagh has ever had a club on the podium of Ulster hurling. The Oak Leafers have come mighty close with three different teams – the Lavey side of the 90s, the Kevin Lynch’s side of the 2000s and now this young Emmets crop.
They had Cushendall half gone in 2014 and three-quarters gone last year, but couldn’t get across the line on either occasion.
But with each winter comes more fresh faces. The average age has gone down again this year with the introduction of Ruairi McCartney, Shane McGuigan, Conor McAllister and Eanna Cassidy into the starting line-up.
Their record of four Derry senior titles in a row is eclipsed by having won eight consecutive under-21 titles prior to this year. They’re getting closer, and they’re getting stronger while doing it.
“The players don’t know anything else. If they had two or three weeks’ rest in between games they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves,” says their manager Michael McShane.
Middletown, though, have ambitions of spoiling dreams by achieving their own.
They may come in as underdogs but Slaughtneil will heed the warning of the Armagh side’s impressive first-half display against Cushendall at this stage last year.
On that occasion Middletown led by a point but in the end, they ran out of gas after being reduced to 14 men and the eventual All-Ireland finalists won by eight.
Rather than dent the confidence, that has imbued it. For Carvill, the constant trips to Dublin to face the cream of their crop are no exercise in futility.
Cahal Carvill is one of a handful of Armagh players that has become fairly accustomed to big games themselves this year.
Reaching National League, Nicky Rackard and Ulster finals with the Orchard county has offered them a taste amid a long season.
“At the end of the day, we see ourselves as coming out of Ulster and maybe facing some of these clubs somewhere down the line. That’s the level we’re at, and you need to prepare at that level to be able to compete at it.
“I have everything planned for a final in two weeks’ time – that’s our aim and we’re very confident that we can get the result at the weekend and win the Ulster senior championship. If you’re not thinking that way, what’s the point of entering it? That’s the way we look at it.”
There is no shortage of belief on either side. Contrast, for instance, Middletown’s struggle against Lisbellaw last year, where they needed a last-minute penalty save to secure victory, with last week’s comfortable 11-point win over the Fermanagh side.
Carvill feels that Slaughtneil are not the team to have improved since last year.
”We know we’ve improved. Every time we go to training we’re always seeking to add 1 per cent to what we’re doing. We want to get better and hone our skills and improve.
“We’re going into Sunday with confidence. All the talk’s of Slaughtneil, all the pressure’s on Slaughtneil, they’re four-in-a-row champions in Derry and they pushed Cushendall all the way last year.
“There’s no pressure on us but if we can hit the heights that we know we can, we believe we’ll win on Sunday.”
But Slaughtneil have emerged from Derry without a scratch. It was the most comfortable success of their domestic reign.
The combined margin of wins over Lavey, Swatragh and Banagher was 70 points, highlighting just how far ahead of the pack they are.
They are becoming famed for a competitive spirit across the board. Last year’s treble of senior county titles in hurling, football and camogie still wasn’t enough to sate them.
“We won the reserve hurling and reserve football competitions last week and even winning those two gave everybody a real boost.
“They didn’t win the reserve football or hurling last year and they won it this year, and that was a big thing for them. They didn’t like the fact that they didn’t win them last year,” revealed McShane.
“They’re blessed that there’s a group of players that have come along in one generation who are all very talented and are very hungry for success.
“They have a great drive and they’ll make sacrifices that other teams won’t. They’ll happily forsake all their social life for six months to go and win things.”
That red card against Cushendall last year was costly for Middletown, and they just got away with ending up with 13 men against Lisbellaw as well. But 2016 has brought a clean slate, with no red cards through the season.
They will need all 15 if they are to stop Slaughtneil. From dead-eye free-take Dean Gaffney and his older brother Ryan, they will require a serious level of accuracy.
The Derry champions are slowly working Gerald Bradley back into their team after a long-term injury but it Brendan Rogers, Cormac O’Doherty and Sé and Mark McGuigan, they have a scoring quartet that should be enough to see them into the final.