Prospect of Slaughtneil semi-final was enough to focus Dunloy minds says Gregory O'Kane
A FIRST county title success in eight years was rightly savoured by all in Dunloy, but the spectre of reigning Ulster champions Slaughtneil was the perfect way to bring an end to the party and refocus minds.
The young Cuchullain's side delivered a performance packed with pace and power to down Cushendall in Ballycastle 12 days ago, and the subsequent outpouring of emotion showed just much it meant to be kings of Antrim once again.
But, with the mighty Emmett's up next, there was no way the celebrations would be allowed to linger on.
Dunloy boast a proud record in Ulster - never losing a provincial clash as the Four Seasons Cup returned to the village 11 times between 1990 and 2009 – yet they travel to Owenbeg for Sunday's semi-final showdown as slight underdogs with the bookies.
And manager Gregory O'Kane, a stalwart of so many of those successes, knows full well the challenge that lies ahead.
“We enjoyed this one, it was our first final in a long time,” he said.
“That's what sport's about – you work hard and you play hard, but lads need to enjoy themselves too. Everybody, the whole club, the whole community, seems to have got something out of this one.
“But we're under no illusions. The very fact it's Slaughtneil, the Ulster champions… if you don't refocus and get your feet back on the ground for a team like Slaughtneil you're not going to get it for anybody.
“The fact it is Slaughtneil probably meant that, after a couple of days, you're starting to say ‘look, there's a huge challenge coming down the road'.
“If we don't perform to the levels we need to get to, you just won't count against a team like Slaughtneil.”
After years of near misses, Slaughtneil finally got across the line last year to become the first Derry club to land an Ulster title.
O'Kane wasn't surprised to see them scale the mountain, and feels that belief will have fed right through the south Derry club.
He added: “They're a wonderful group of people, nearly like an institution as opposed to a club.
“It's massive what they have done, promoting Gaelic games at every level, and they keep producing week after week, year after year.
“You look at their progression – in 2014 they played Loughgiel in Celtic Park, there was very little in that game. In 2015 against Cushendall it was extra-time and a replay, then last year they beat Loughgiel in the Athletic Grounds.
“That's consistency of progression so in that regard, against Antrim teams, this Slaughtneil team has always produced.”
Yet Dunloy's victory over the Ruairi Ogs didn't come out of the blue - far from it. With a host of talented underage stars making the breakthrough at senior level, blending seamlessly with the experienced heads still leading the way, the Cuchullain's have long been regarded as a coming force.
And in Ballycastle on September 24, everything clicked.
“The Antrim championship is hard to win. It's hard to get over the line.
“We got to the final and, in a way, getting there was the hardest part. In the final we just seemed to express ourselves, maybe all the pressure was on Cushendall in that regard.
“We've been working on this the last three or four years, and probably on the day everything came good for us. The performance level right through the team was very good, our experienced players played very well too on the day and calmed the younger players down and allowed them to express themselves.
“We were just delighted for the players and everybody involved.”