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The Glens of Antrim, the Boss and the famous Ruairi Ogs

St Mary's, Cushendall primary and nursery schools are right behind the Ruairi Ogs' All-Ireland tilt

IN THIS trade, you get to meet all sorts of people. More good people than bad, I might add. One of the most genuine people I’ve met through working in The Irish News has been Terence McNaughton.

As a journalist, I caught the tail-end of his playing career with Antrim and Ruairi Og, Cushendall. After he retired I would have ghost-written his weekly hurling column in our newspaper.

One morning I got an unexpected call from Terence. He was ringing to do one of two things - to praise or berate me for something I’d written in the sports pages. It turned out to be neither. I’d been to a Bruce Springsteen concert the night before in Dublin and I’d penned a small review for the news section. Terence was gushing in his praise. According to him, it was the best thing I’d ever written. It didn’t say a lot, I thought, for the other stuff I’d written in the sports pages.

While we got to know each other fairly well over the years, I didn’t realise we shared the same passion for Springsteen’s music. There is not a lyric of Springsteen’s that Terence doesn’t know. We became firm friends after that.

We did go through a lamentably juvenile period where we’d text a Springsteen lyric and the other had to guess the song. Terence has designed a t-shirt that neatly sums up two of his greatest passions: Bruce Springsteen and Ruairi Og, Cushendall and their crack at All-Ireland glory next week.

I got to know his wife Ursula and their eldest son Shane. I love to visit the Glens from time to time. It’s good for the soul. In 2007, Terence sorted out a few nights’ accommodation for my wife and I at a local guest house in Cushendall.

We spent three magical days touring the sun-splashed Glens, my fondest memory of which was sunbathing in a field near the top of Torr Head and falling asleep, only to be awakened by the distant complaint of a sheep. I envy the people of the Glens. In terms of scenery, west Cork, Mayo and Galway have a lot going for them - but for sheer beauty nothing compares to the Glens.

I was back up in Cushendall two weeks ago for the club’s All-Ireland final press night. There wasn’t a press officer in sight, nobody conducting affairs because they didn’t need conducting. The entire town had crammed into the Ruairi Og clubrooms to wish their players and management the best of luck ahead of their game against the Munster champions, Na Piarsaigh of Limerick, at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.

After eight failed semi-final attempts, Cushendall reached their first-ever All-Ireland final by beating Galway champions Sarsfield’s in Navan last month. All-Ireland semi-finals can be fretful affairs, but the Ruairi Ogs produced the kind of performance teams dream about, winning 3-12 to 1-6. The Galway champions mustered just 1-1 from open play. In hurling terms, it was a virtual shut-out.

At their press night, the players pucked around under their training floodlights, signed hurls, jerseys, notebooks, posed for photographs and granted every interview request that came their way. Martin Burke, Eoghan Campbell, Arron Graffin and the man with the perpetual smile Sean Delargy broke away from pucking balls to do interviews with The Irish News.

Everybody ignored the cold. Before the crowds gathered at the club two Friday nights ago, I spoke to team manager John ‘Smokey’ McKillop in one of the changing rooms. Here was the man who has fulfilled every role in the club - from groundsman to chairman to senior team manager. He told me how he felt when the final whistle sounded in Navan and what it meant to everyone associated with the Ruairi Ogs.

In the weights room, Shane McNaughton and Neil McManus agreed to do a small piece to camera. Asked what was the best thing about living in Cushendall, McManus answered: “The people and how much they love the place they live in, the folklore, music and the hurling.”

On nights like these you realise the jewel in the GAA’s crown. It is the All-Ireland Club Championship. It is far and away the best, most romantic competition in the GAA.

It’s about family. Your own blood. In RTE’s Toughest Trade, Tipperary’s All-Ireland winner Brendan Maher explained why the club would always trump the county: “It’s the number one ambition for me to win a county title with Borris-Ileigh,” said Maher.

“I’ve always said it and I stand by it. I’d take a medal with my club ahead of county. That’s no disrespect to Tipperary but at the end of the day you talk about grassroots and where you started and Borris-Ileigh is number one in my list and it always will be. I’m a Borris man through and through and it would mean the world to me to win something with Borris-Ileigh.”

Terence McNaughton and his wife Ursula will be hoping their two sons Shane and Christy do themselves justice on the biggest day of their careers. Claire Burke will want the same for her sons Martin and Paddy. The same for Sean Delargy and Alec Delargy. Aidan McNaughton and Shea McNaughton.

Croke Park won’t be packed to the rafters on St Patrick’s Day but it doesn’t need to be: “The greatest thing about the town,” says Terence McNaughton, “is everybody feels part of it.”

He’s been training the club’s senior team this season. His next role at the club will be assistant manager to the U12s. During his playing days Terence never got to play in an All-Ireland final with his club.

Defeats to St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield, Wolfe Tone’s, both from Clare, Mount Sion of Waterford and Midleton of Cork are etched in his mind. He’s now living the All-Ireland dream through the eyes of his two sons.

“If I had a choice of me playing in an All-Ireland final and my two sons playing in one, I’d chose them two. Of course you would.”

Asked what the club means to him, he said: “Your club means that you’re playing with guys that are going to carry you to your grave. That’s what a club is.”

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