GAA Football

Realising belief can't be faked propelled Slaughtneil

Slaughtneil have enjoyed unparalleled success across football, hurling and camogie.Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

AT the very beginning of Monday night’s GAA webinar focussing on Slaughtneil’s success, national hurling director Martin Fogarty told a yarn.

The Emmet’s hurling boss, Michael McShane, had called him up in 2015 looking about a training session and a challenge game to fill out a weekend in Kilkenny.

The Castlecomer native told them to come on ahead, but he had to be flexible with the truth on his own territory.

“The first problem was I had to tell my fellas down here that we were playing a team from Galway. Other than that, they mightn’t have turned up, or turned up in a way I wouldn’t have wanted them.

“The game was tight at half-time, a point or two in it, and I remember our lads saying ‘we never heard Galway lads with Derry accents’.”

Four of the Slaughtneil team had played a football match for Derry the night before and hopped into the car to hightail it down the road.

Over the course of two hours, they lined up to try and squeeze secrets out of Brendan Rogers, Michael McShane, Aoife Ní Chasaide and Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley.

From Jamesie O’Connor to Rena Buckley to Michael Rice and Niamh Kilkenny, they came armed with questions designed to draw some nugget out.

There were elements that drew the ear in.

The camogs, the club’s most successful product as three-in-a-row All-Ireland winners before losing a fourth final early this year, started off traipsing the country to play challenge games.

They’d head for Kilkenny too, playing Thomastown and Rathnure, and into Dublin to play Kilmacud. Those clubs, without disrespect as such, took them as the stereotype northern team.

“You’re going there, their county players weren’t allowed to play and matches weren’t up to scratch,” said McKinley.

Yet they didn’t tell their own girls until they started to figure it themselves.

Loughgiel were the dominant side in Antrim and Ulster, and as a native, ‘Woody’ has ended up going in against two of his own nieces in a series of provincial finals.

They invited the Shamrocks down to play a challenge game in Slaughtneil back at the very start, and took a trimming.

“When you don’t even know the score, you know it was bad.”

They kept inviting Loughgiel back until they beat them, twice in-a-row.

“There were no more friendlies after that.”

By that stage, belief was no longer an issue for Slaughtneil.

Slaughtneil camogs have graduated now into playing full-tilt challenge games against Kilkenny’s county team, Dublin’s, Meath’s. There’s nobody taking them lightly any more.

As the lockdown debate has cranked around to a health check on the small ball game in the northern province, calls for a Team Ulster in hurling have grown.

Two hours in the virtual company of Slaughtneil’s finest offered all the answers you would need.

Success is built from the ground up. There is no shortcut, no quick fix.

And most importantly, belief cannot be bought. It can’t be faked. You can’t just be told to have it.

“We’re doing our apprenticeship, we’re learning,” said hurling boss McShane, whose team almost scalped one of the greatest of all time, Ballyhale, in the All-Ireland semi-final in January.

“One thing that maybe differentiates Slaughtneil and Ballyhale, or Ballygunner and Ballyhale, is belief,” he said, addressing a question from Ballygunner coach Fergal Hartley.

“Ballyhale believe they’re going to go and win the All-Ireland. It doesn’t matter how many times you stand in a changing room and tell players that they’re good enough to do it, they have to learn for themselves.

“They have to learn and that belief will come to them. After the Cuala game and the Na Piarsaigh game, we maybe lacked belief.

“We had great belief going into the semi-final this year, and even greater belief coming out of it, believe it or not.”

Their belief came from the hours upon hours of work they’d put into it.

Same as the camogs.

From a coaching perspective, it was interesting to listen to Dominic McKinley.

He hailed the influence Mickey Glover, who managed the club’s hurlers to their first county title before McShane took over, had in terms of encouraging the use of GPS systems.

A coach of vast experience, he found himself almost re-learning sessions and finding a way to build the running and ballwork together so that they’d get everything at once.

Crucially, he talked about the girls learning to think for themselves in a game.

“We worked on game-based stuff, 3v2, 2v3, 4v2, backs and forwards, coming up against sweepers. Players have to know what to do.

“Ideally you want the team to be able to manage the game on their own - what to do if you come up against a sweeper, when to go short or long on puckouts.

“Would we have won our All-Irelands without that? Not a chance.

“We were left with situations where a corner-back or half-back was left on their own, and we had to teach them to take the ball and carry it.

“I talk about killing the grass – take the ball, kill the grass in front of you until you meet a player and then hit it or lay it off.

“Working on small margins – all our games were one or two points, so frees, taking shots from bad angles is something I’d be very tough on.

“Shots for yourself aren’t a hard luck story, when you’re at a tight angle, the ball should come back every time. Not now and again – every time. The team has to come first.”

Nobody gave Slaughtneil a foot-up. They have no lamp they can rub for a bit of extra help.

Everything they have, they’ve built from the ground up.

Their belief in themselves, to keep coming back, to win more, to push on further, is what underpins it all.

It comes from one place and one place alone – the work they’ve done.

Hard work builds belief. Neither can be faked.

Slaughtneil don't fake it.

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