'Cushendall are in a good place - but Dunloy will have a few surprises' - Karl McKeegan
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final: Ruairi Og Cushendall v Cuchullain’s Dunloy (Sunday, Ballycastle, 3.15pm)
IT was a question of when not if Karl McKeegan would move into management with his club.
Ruairi Og manager Philip Campbell made the offer to the former Antrim hurler last year – but it’s only this year McKeegan has sunk his teeth into the role.
“I was still playing last year and didn’t think I’d get involved in management so quickly but it’s the next best thing to playing,” says McKeegan who manages Harry’s Restaurant in Cushendall.
“In the restaurant business you’re working evenings and weekends and it probably put an end to ideas of me going back for another year.
“I miss training. People say they hate training but I enjoyed it. Nobody enjoys the winter slog but at this time of year you do miss it. I miss the whole hurling side of it.”
Although McKeegan played his part in Cushendall’s Ulster final and All-Ireland semi-final wins over Slaughtneil and Sarsfields of Galway, respectively, game-time was the enemy in 2016/17.
“We had the All-Ireland campaign last year and we trained for well over a year.
“I thought about giving it another good year but I was tired and last year I only played a few games.
“I wish I would have played more because I felt I was fit enough… I’ve played a few games for the reserves this year and part of me still thinks I could play but we’ve a good panel of 30 players and there is no point in holding any young lads back.”
Just turned 39, McKeegan is charged with training the senior team and acts as one of Campbell’s selectors.
The holder of seven county championship winner’s medals, the former centre-back thought the transition from being a team-mate to team trainer would have been tougher.
“I actually thought it would be difficult but it’s been good,” he says.
“I wouldn’t hear it anyway but the players don’t seem to have any grumbles. I know how a lot of them train anyway and I know who to push – so I think I can get the best out of them. I don’t have to go mad at the players but the odd time I’d let rip.”
The Ruairi Ogs find themselves in their fifth consecutive county final tomorrow where they take on the young guns of Dunloy.
They achieved back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015 but were denied three-in-a-row last year by arch-rivals Loughgiel Shamrocks.
Looking back to last year’s decider in Ballycastle, it was no surprise Cushendall were knocked off their perch.
They were coming off the back of an All-Ireland final defeat at Croke Park, key player Neil McManus had returned from his travels to feature against Loughgiel but they were missing the defensive nous of Arron Graffin who was also travelling the world.
In truth, they were probably missing the hunger of previous years and looked a jaded outfit in reaching last year’s final.
After a pair of handy wins over Clooney Gaels and St Brigid’s, Cloughmills in the early rounds of this season's championship, Cushendall avenged last year’s county final defeat by beating Loughgiel 0-13 to 0-12 in the semi-finals.
“I know we weren’t as prepared as well as we should have been last year, probably because we were coming off a long All-Ireland campaign,” insists McKeegan.
“Neil [McManus] came back late and [Arron] Graffin was away travelling. But this year we’re a lot more settled this year.
“So I think we are in a good place this year. You don’t want to sound over-confident because we're facing a really good team in Dunloy. We’ve trained well and we’ve played a couple of good challenge games.”
The Cushendall management team saw enough in their narrow win over Loughgiel to justify carrying the favourites tag into tomorrow’s intriguing showdown with Gregory O’Kane’s Dunloy team.
“It came down to who wanted it more and I thought our backs were outstanding against Loughgiel,” McKeegan says.
“I thought we should have won by a few points but that’s Loughgiel, they never give up. But I felt we always looked in control; the hunger was there and the fight was there. The hooks and blocks and work-rate were fantastic. That was pleasing.”
Dunloy, though, will present a different, less familiar challenge.
“Dick [Gregory O’Kane] will have something up his sleeve," McKeegan predicts. "You’re getting noises from different places that Dunloy really fancy this game.”
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final: Ruairi Og Cushendall v Cuchullain’s Dunloy (tomorrow, Ballycastle, 3.15pm)
THERE are signs that a new dynasty is emerging in Antrim hurling. The minors of Cuchullain’s Dunloy will compete in their third successive county final tomorrow and they are also reigning champions at U21 level.
And with some of last year’s minor team stepping up to senior level and flourishing, there is no reason to think that Dunloy can’t add to their 11 county titles over the next five years.
Minors last year, Keelan Molloy and Conal Cunning are two prized assets in Gregory O’Kane’s attack this season.
They have handled the step up with relative ease and with Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels supplying them with consistently excellent balls they have the raw ability to hurt Cushendall.
Both Molloy and Cunning shone in Dunloy's championship wins over St John’s and Ballycastle – but tomorrow is the ultimate test.
The bedrock of Cushendall’s success over the past four or five years has been their physically imposing defence.
They kept Loughgiel to a meagre 12 points in the semi-finals.
Molloy and Cunning haven’t faced seasoned defenders such as Ruairi Og trio Paddy Burke, Martin Burke and Arron Graffin until now.
No matter how many intelligent balls ‘Shorty’ is able to feed the pair, the anticipated heavy conditions at Ballycastle may favour the Cushendall back-line.
But how do Cushendall go about dealing with ‘Shorty’ – the undoubted brains of this Dunloy outfit?
To put Neil McManus on his county-mate would be the ultimate compliment but such a move could disable the Ruairi Og attack.
It may be left to the indefatigable Aidan McNaughton to deny ‘Shorty’ space in the middle of the field.
And while there is much talk surrounding Dunloy’s fleet-footed attack, Cushendall have bags of quality and experience up front too.
Conor Carson, Sean McAfee and Paddy McGill have been in good form in this campaign and with McManus posing a major threat, the Dunloy back-line – marshalled by Conor McKinley and captain James McKeague – may have a job on their hands trying to stop them.
Despite their relative inexperience, it would be wrong of Dunloy to go into tomorrow's final thinking they are bound to win a county title soon and that their day will come.
But there is no time like the present.
But Cushendall know this terrain more intimately and are expected to record their 14th county title to push three ahead of the Cuchullain's club on the roll of honour.
PATHS TO THE FINAL
Ruairi Og Cushendall
Ruairi Og Cushendall 4-20 Clooney Gaels 0-12
Ruairi Og Cushendall 6-26 St Brigid’s Cloughmills 1-11
Ruairi Og Cushendall 0-13 Loughgiel 0-12
Cuchullains Dunloy 2-15 St John’s, Belfast 3-12
Cuchullains Dunloy 2-21 Ballycastle 0-10