Liam Watson could spearhead Loughgiel attack after coming out of retirement for championship tilt
Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship
LOUGHGIEL’S 2012 All-Ireland final hero Liam Watson could spearhead the Shamrocks attack against old foes Cushendall in tomorrow’s championship opener – nine months after announcing his retirement from the game.
Watson, who turns 38 this month, called time on his playing days last December. However, he has been back training with Loughgiel and, despite not featuring in the league win over Ballycastle a few weeks back, could play some part in tomorrow’s opening Group Two clash (2pm, Loughgiel).
“Liam’s back doing a bit of training alright - I’m not going to say whether you’d expect to see him on Sunday or not,” said Shamrocks boss Hugh McCann, who saw his side bow out to eventual champions Dunloy at the semi-final stage of last year’s championship.
“Liam did retire and had full intentions of retiring, but he’s obviously kept himself in very good shape. Liam’s one of the best trainers I’ve ever seen, and the short season probably appealed to him. He just thought if he could bring something to it, why not?
“Liam brings a different dimension to everything he does. Even for some of the younger boys coming through, some of last year’s minors, for them to be playing and training alongside Liam and the other lads, it’s a really good learning curve for them.”
And Watson is not the only experienced head to throw his shoulder to the wheel, with fellow 2012 All-Ireland winners Neil McGarry and Joey Scullion also returning to McCann’s panel in recent times.
A strong crop of minors such as Declan McCloskey are also on their way through to the senior side, where the likes of Barney McAuley, Shay Casey, Mark McFadden, Eddie and Ronan McCloskey form a solid-looking backbone.
Like Loughgiel, Cushendall’s only game thus far has been a victory over Ballycastle – the Ruairi Ogs notching a 4-19 to 2-14 win in the delayed 2019 Feis final, which was only played last month.
With the returning Sean McAfee, Christy McNaughton and Conor Carson adding to an already strong panel, the 2018 county champions go in determined to win back that crown under Eamonn Gillen.
However, as his Loughgiel counterpart points out, teams are heading into the unknown after limited competitive preparation.
“You’re going in with no form, you don’t really know what to expect,” added McCann.
“It’s been hard to prepare for because you don’t have all the games coming up to it where boys are expecting that intensity so you’re trying to do that all in-house, in a very short window.
“So you’re trying to manage the intensity of training but at the same time protect them from injury. It’s a tough juggling act.”
With Cushendall and Loughgiel expected to secure first and second spots in Group Two, St Enda’s and St Gall’s will battle it out for third spot, which will be good enough for a quarter-final berth. They face off in what is virtually a knock-out clash on the Hightown Road tomorrow (2pm).
Cushendall native Chris Dornan, who returned neighbours Cushendun to the junior championship podium for the first time in 55 years in 2018, is in charge of St Gall’s having moved to Belfast in recent times.
Dornan will hope to weave his magic at the Milltown club and can call upon at least eight dual players for tomorrow’s make-or-break clash against St Enda’s, among them CJ McGourty, Conor Burke, Sean Burke, Aodhan Gallagher, Niall O’Neill, Ryan Irvine, Tomas McKiernan, Marcus Donnelly and Eoghan McCurdy.
“I’ve been hammering it into the players that if we win this game we’re in a quarter-final. It all comes down to Sunday,” said Dornan.
The St Gall’s manager will be mindful of the threats St Enda’s pose from midfield upwards after the Division One new boys took the scalp of St John’s 10 days ago.
Midfielder Eoin Conlan was magnificent for the Glengormley men while Killian Jennings will be one to watch having bagged a hat-trick in their surprise win over the Johnnies.
Meanwhile, county champions Dunloy open their account at home to Ballycastle (2pm) and will want to exorcise their Ulster final defeat to Slaughtneil back in November.
The wily Gregory O’Kane is still the man at the helm as the Cuchullain’s are expected to negotiate a way past McQuillan’s who aren't the force of old.
At Shaw’s Road, it’s a battle between Belfast dual clubs O’Donovan Rossa and St John’s (tomorrow, 2pm). Johnnies pair Ciaran Johnston and Domhnall Nugent have been regular fixtures for both the footballers and hurlers even though the Corrigan Park men haven’t yet found their stride in either code.
Rossa, who have yo-yoed between senior and intermediate in recent years, retained their spot at the top table last season, and will rely on a host of dual players to edge into quarter-final contention.
Former county ace and captain Michael Armstrong will lead the charge for Rossa alongside Stephen Beatty, Gerard Walsh, centre-back Chris McGuinness and livewire attacker Deaglan Murphy.
“It’s so hard for us because you never go into a match with your full squad,” said Rossa boss Colly Murphy, whose side haven’t had a league run-out before tomorrow’s championship tussle. "I just thought the [football and hurling] games could've been spaced out a bit better, but it is what it is."