National Hurling League Focus: Antrim hurling ace Eoghan Campbell out to make 2017 a season worth remembering
SEPTEMBER 12, 1981, page nine of Saturday’s 10-page Irish News. Antrim’s junior camogs are Croke Park-bound for an All-Ireland decider the following day.
The smiling pen-pics offer a breath of distance from the slew of thick headlines zooming in on the worst of times.
In that Saffron number to face Clare is 18-year-old Joan McAllister of Cushendall.
The ‘strong’ number four’s profile hails ‘an indomitable centre who can wreck any attacking plan... fast and can use the wings to advantage.”
If Antrim’s Eoghan Campbell ever needed reminding these days of the source of his own gift under a sliothar, his mother might not be open to debate.
“Yeah, mammy played at Croke Park for the county. I forget what in and I’m not even sure if she won, she’ll kill me now for not knowing,” says the easygoing 22-year-old with a laugh.
“But she’d remind me an odd time. She definitely let me know anyway before my own first time out in Croke.
“Dad hurled too, he was about that panel for Cushendall’s first ever county [championship] in ‘81. He wouldn’t have been a starter, so I’d say the mother sees the genes as hers, absolutely.”
The Banner, for the record, triumphed 3-2 to 0-7, proving a harder station than Galway had in the semi-final for Ms McAllister and company.
Ruairi Og’s hurlers – Tommy Campbell in reserve – would edge Ballycastle in their breakthrough county final replay. That was after a lively draw on the same weekend Tommy’s future wife was gracing Headquarters.
A maiden Ulster Club crown gilded the club’s script that season with 16-year-old Terence McNaughton set
off the leash.
“Both are still hurling mad,” adds Campbell. “They’d have been taking me from no age to club and county games. They’d be going to Walsh Cup too, every Antrim game they can ever get to.
“It’s why you keep pushing yourself on when you’re out on the field. I’m just like anyone else, you always want to go out and make your mother and father proud.”
Campbell’s progress has always been go-ahead, if not always golden. A trove of winner’s medals and memories has been banked. But Christy Ring, All-Ireland Club, All-Ireland U21... there’s enough showpiece woe squatting there too for any man chasing dreams.
The entire family are steeped in golf as well as hurling. And the former Cross & Passion, Ballycastle ‘dual player’ adds he once held the irons as sacred as the ash.
“I still love golf, when I was younger it was at least as important to me as hurling was,” he says.
“I got to maybe U14 and the hurling was taking over, but golf’s a big passion, right back to school. I’d still try to get on the course when I can.
“I don’t have a handicap now, but played off 13 as a kid in the competitions. All the family’s big into it, dad’s off about nine I think and he’s a former captain too. We’d still be around the golf club a lot.
“Whether it’s the Masters, even that Farmers Insurance Open last week, I’m always glued to it. Watching those players stay calm under pressure and setting a ball inches from a hole from hundreds of yards, it just amazes me.”
His early trajectory with a hurl posted notice of his promise. Under the steer of mentors like ex-Derry footballer Joe Cassidy and current Coleraine soccer boss Oran Kearney, he was a colleges Allstar in sixth year.
Mageean Cup success, though, eluded him despite the school’s rich pedigree at the level.
When Antrim’s U21s trampled over bookies’ odds on Wexford of 1/80 in 2013 to stun the Yellowbellies and reach the county’s first All-Ireland final since the seniors of ’89, he was barely 19. He was also the stand-out sweeper at its heart.
Tommy Campbell cried in Thurles that day. For the proud family man who had lost his own dad too soon, that was a father-son moment in time. Words were hardly needed.
“I probably didn’t even appreciate that achievement at the time like I do now,” Campbell reflects.
“Kevin Ryan was taking us and the turn-outs for training were never great. But we’d a core of boys that day who believed and stuck to Kevin’s plan the whole 60 minutes.
“Maybe Wexford didn’t respect us enough. I’m not gonna say we surprised them because we just hurled better than them that day. It was maybe a wee bit like ’89, it felt like it really lifted the whole county.”
Clare soon popped that Saffron bubble back at Semple Stadium. Studded with a dozen men who would also lift the biggest prize as part of their senior squad’s final replay triumph over Cork the next week, the Banner went to town.
It was 32 years and a day after the same county’s camogs had also checked ambitious Antrim advances.
“That was crazy, that just felt like a big tidal wave coming right at you,” he adds.
“But it was still great to go up against the likes of Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin. Then the next week you’re watching those same boys flying again, out winning the Liam MacCarthy.”
Four years on, Campbell has continued to rack up a wealth of experience.
The Computing Technologies student at Jordanstown, now on placement in ‘Incident Management’ at Stormont Estate, ended last year trying to repel the best of Munster with Ulster’s inter-provincial team.
He had started 2016 as a pivot in Cushendall’s heady trek to their first ever All-Ireland final last
St Patrick’s Day.
Their semi-final elation against Sarsfield’s of Galway broke new ground for the club. But the pangs from a final defeat to Na Piarsaigh still stick in the craw.
“There was always the feeling the club left it behind in a few semi-finals, ’08 and further back, ones saying we couldn’t do it against a Galway side, but we proved all those people wrong,” he says.
“Hindsight is all well, but if we had the final again we’d maybe play a different game. I’d love to have played a sweeper that day, we’d just been more comfortable with it all year.
“At the same time, you now take what you can from it. We have to be proud, we were the first Cushendall team to play an All-Ireland final. We’ve a lot of ones stepping up now from minors and U21s and we’ll bounce back and give that a big push again next year.”
Learning lessons from last season’s brick walls on the county front is also circled in red for the aspiring midfielder and occasional sweeper.
Campbell did land a Christy Ring ‘Champions 15’ award – “I’d swap it for a winner’s medal” – but Meath clipped Antrim’s tiring wings in the decider, twice over, on the unforgiving plains of Croke Park.
Under the four-pronged clout of Terence McNaughton, Dominic McKinley, Gary O’Kane and Neal Peden, hard miles have been put into legs and lungs over a regenerative winter.
Block and boulder are being shifted to reach the ‘top 12’ and Leinster again.
“It had to happen after the nightmare of last year’s Christy Ring, like we definitely lost it all in the
last 10, 15 minutes,” he insists.
“We had Meath hurled off the park in the first half both times. I think a problem was too many of us thought we had the cup already won.
“We’d no focus in the second half both days, the conditioning wasn’t there and it caught us out.
“Extra-time the second time finished us off, there was nothing left in the tank and the Meath boys kept going.
“We all knew we needed a hard pre-season. Even the challenge games and Walsh Cup, the difference in fitness now is night and day, there’s a professionalism there.
“Neil [McManus], ‘Shorty’ [Paul Shiels] and Conor McCann (inset) are back in too and they’re
setting high standards for everyone.
“When it comes to the likes of these Westmeath and Carlow games this year, we’ll know we have that extra mile in us and not one of us out there will just disappear.”
‘Indomitable’ is how a smiling pen-pic might describe Eoghan Campbell’s attitude.
The best apples in the Glens seldom fall far from their trees.