'This time last year, I'm not joking, I could hardly walk'
TWELVE months ago, Antoin McMullan cut a glum figure standing at the edge of the Slaughtneil bench, his hand rested under his chin watching on at his club’s games.
Having held the number one jersey for almost the whole of the 12 seasons since he broke into the team with a string of fine performances in the club’s run to the 2008 county final.
His saves from Eoin and Paddy Bradley in the quarter-final live in the memory to this day, and barring a short spell out in the 18 months after, he has grown into a trusty number one.
This year he’s been back in harness and playing some of the best football of his career. His handful of big fetches when under an aerial assault against Glen were backed up by a sound display against Ballinderry as Slaughtneil book their place in a first county final in three years.
Yet there were times last year when McMullan wasn’t sure if he’d be able to find a way back from an “arthritis-type” condition which left him worried about more than just football.
“I had a bad back injury, like an arthritis-type thing. I’ve sort of got on top of it now,” he said.
“It’s good to get back out because this time last year, I’m not joking, I could hardly walk. I thought I wasn’t going to play much more football after a while.
“But with the covid-19 thing, it’s good to be back out training, being around people and mixing with boys. It’s been very enjoyable.
“I was supposed to go and get immune-suppressing injections but I heard bad reports about them. I went to a guy privately and between different changes in diet, natural supplements, it’s responded well. I haven’t had any pain.
“This time last year, I couldn’t go a full night without waking up in the middle of the night with pain with it. I was sore every time you’re walking.
“This time last year, I wasn’t even worried about football, I was worried about going to bed at night and being fit to sleep a full night.
“It’s good to be in good health and back out playing football again.”
As one of the few non-dual players in the Slaughtneil ranks, having given up hurling at underage level, McMullan will be seeking a fifth county medal on Sunday.
In his way will be a Magherafelt team whose organisation coupled with their pace and power has made them fairly quickly into a formidable force in Derry football.
Few gave them a chance of winning last year’s title and not many more reckoned they would retain it but just as in 1979, they’re back in the final to defend the crown.
The sides’ respective semi-final wins couldn’t have been more different, with Magherafelt having to scrape past the Loup in a game that they were the better side in, while Slaughtneil’s early burst left Ballinderry sitting back in the traps in what became a 16-point victory.
“Magherafelt have been on a journey for the last couple of years where they now look like a side that can see games out and close games out,” said McMullan.
“They’ve a wee bit of experience, a wee bit of know-how. As well as that they’ve great players all over the pitch and they’re well organised, so they’ll be a very, very hard team to beat.
“They’re on a high, they’re the champions, and they’ll be the team to beat.”