Slaughtneil's mental strength set for its annual test
THROUGH all the silverware they’ve gathered up over the last five years, one of Slaughtneil’s greatest achievements has been their ability to always produce it on the big day.
They are the reigning Ulster hurling, football and camogie champions. Five years unbeaten in Derry hurling, four years in football and three years in camogie.
There have only been three occasions that you could pinpoint them not reaching their potential – in the All-Ireland football final in 2015 against Corofin, their subsequent decoronation in Ulster to Scotstown later that year, and the Ulster hurling semi-final replay against Cushendall the previous autumn.
This is the time of year when their mental capacity is tested every bit as much as the physical. To rise the body for one big game after the next is, for Michael McShane, the easy bit.
“The physical side is the easier bit. You can get guys to the icebath and do recovery sessions in the pool. But these guys never go into a big game not looking forward to it.
“I would probably have been critical of our lads for the performance against Ballinascreen but that came between two massive football matches against Ballinderry and Glen. That was three weeks in a row where you’re asking them to get really up for games.
“Against Ballinascreen we were level going in at half-time and the boys were able to go up a couple of gears, and the quality did stand out. We won by 13 points without really pushing ourselves.
“It is hard to ask the lads to keep getting up every week for a big game. But when it gets to this time of year when these high profile games come and there’s more at stake, these boys just love it.
“They seem to be able to get themselves up for the games, there’s never a problem with that, thank God.”
They emerged from the Derry hurling championship with comfort, that win over ‘Screen followed up by a repeat of last year’s 10-point county final victory over Banagher.
Sunday will provide a different challenge altogether. Dunloy are buoyant and always confident after their first Antrim success in eight years.
They’ll be no more a stranger to McShane than he is to them. The former Ballycastle forward, and still a north coast native, watched the Cuchullains in their quarter-final, semi-final and final games.
And yet it still something different from the Slaughtneil standpoint, having met Cushendall in 2014 and 2015, and Loughgiel in 2013 and 2016.
The wristy class of the young Dunloy attack was too much for the shell-shocked Ruairi Ógs and McShane has been impressed by what he has seen.
“They have an element of a young team about them, they maybe have five or six guys under-21, but there’s a lot of lads there with a lot of experience too.
“These guys aren’t wet behind the ears – Paul Shiels, the two McKeagues [James and Kevin], Conor McKinley, those guys have been around the block a few times and know what it’s all about, and some of them would have medals from previous championships.
“The young guys that have come in up front have given them a real injection of pace and scoring ability. They like to keep things tight at the back, keep everything solid, and then move the ball as quick as they can into the forwards.
“They stumbled in the first half against Cushendall but they opened up and blitzed Cushendall in the first 15 minutes of the second half in a manner that I haven’t seen done in a long time.
“It went from Cushendall leading by three points to the game being over 15 minutes later. We’ll have to keep everything very tight on them. We can’t let the game expand or open up too much because that’s where they’re at their best.”
The game is currently set for Owenbeg after the Derry champions won the toss for home venue, though a pitch inspection is due tomorrow and it could yet be moved to the drier Celtic Park surface.
As comfortable as they’ve been on home soil this year, there has to be more in the Slaughtneil tank, or else.
“There’s always going to be a step-up, and that’s no disrespect to the teams we played in Derry, but we’re playing the champions of another county.
“I wasn’t pleased with the way we played against Ballinascreen. It was a very physical game against Banagher and we played fairly well, but there’s certainly more in us.
“We haven’t played anywhere near the level we did against Middletown and Loughgiel last year, but that’s always a good thing because there’s room to improve.”