Experienced Portglenone won't under-estimate Dunloy in football semi-finals

Portglenone will hope to reach their first county final since 2009 Picture Mal McCann.
Portglenone will hope to reach their first county final since 2009 Picture Mal McCann. Portglenone will hope to reach their first county final since 2009 Picture Mal McCann.

Northern Switchgear Antrim Senior Football Championship semi-final: Roger Casement’s, Portglenone v Cuchullain’s Dunloy (Friday, Dunsilly, 7.30pm)

OSCAR Wilde once said of experience: ‘It’s the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.’

Roger Casement’s Portglenone know all about the lessons of bitter experience.

They’ve lost four championship semi-finals on the trot as they return to the scene of the crime in Dunsilly on Friday evening against gate-crashers Dunloy.

This intriguing semi-final between Portglenone and Dunloy could be billed as a team carrying the scarring defeats of the recent past against an excitable side riding the crest of a wave and intent on squeezing every last drop out of this extended run on the senior stage.

Of course, the truth is just not as neat as that. Dunloy had their own tale of woe at intermediate level before eventually getting over the line – and this season they’ve managed to stitch a couple of layers of confidence to their backs by beating St Gall’s and Lamh Dhearg on their way to the last four.

They’ll fancy a crack at this Portglenone side whose form has wavered in this season’s championship.

One of the abiding images of last year’s engaging Antrim senior football championship was an inconsolable John McKeever crouching down in the middle of the pitch in Dunsilly and Aghagallon’s extra-time goal hero Adam Loughran being carried shoulder high just a matter of yards away.

Portglenone had dominated Aghagallon for large swathes of last season’s semi-final but couldn’t put them away – just as they couldn’t in Barry Dillon’s final year in charge in 2021.

If their 2021 semi-final defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, last season’s was even worse. It was McKeever’s first year in charge of his own club, but the desperate semi-final narrative continued.

“I’d say I didn’t get over that defeat until the floodlights were turned on for the first time in pre-season,” says McKeever, a teacher at Holy Trinity College in Cookstown.

“That’s being brutally honest. That defeat was very, very tough to take because it’s your own club, you’ve a lot of emotions, best friends and family involved.

“We were so close to the final, we’d played so well and to have nothing to show for it. It was really tough to take, but fair play to Aghagallon – they got to another final and were unlucky [against Cargin].

“In the lead-up to this game we haven’t mentioned last year’s semi-final. We actually discussed it in pre-season and corrected a few things in the league games this year and I said in huddle after the quarter-final against Creggan that we’ll not be talking about any semi-finals over the last few years.”

Portglenone have endured something of a turbulent championship campaign to date. They were unconvincing in the group stages and were made to sweat all the way against a weakened Creggan in the quarter-finals.

Going all out to win their first-ever Division One league title took its toll on the squad and perhaps goes some way to explaining their championship performances to date.

“It took a lot out of us winning the league for the first time in our history, believe it or not, because we’d put everything into that,” McKeever explains.

“And the knock-on effect from that was that we got a number of injuries. You ask yourself: was it worth the risk? It absolutely was, but it meant in the group stages of the championship this year, a lot of our fringe players got loads of minutes in those games and I think that’s made the squad a whole lot stronger in terms of championship football.

“And some of those players who were injured are now back to full fitness or very close to it.”

In their group stages defeat to Lamh Dhearg in Cargin, McKeever was without three of his key players – Dermot McAleese and joint captains Niall Delargy and Ryan Convery – and it showed in the final scoreline.

Delargy has since returned to full fitness and McAleese has been in full contact training for a few weeks now and is fit for selection against Dunloy.

Convery, however, is still sidelined with a ruptured ACL and has been a huge loss to Portglenone’s push for championship glory in 2023.

Dunloy, who have around a dozen dual players in their ranks, won’t fear the challenge that awaits them in Dunsilly on Friday night.

“Not only is Dunloy a brilliant club, they’ve brilliant dual players,” McKeever says.

“They won a couple of minor championships a few years ago and I’m fully aware of the challenge they present us with.

“They’ve some really good players and you saw the wins they had against St Gall’s and Lamh Dhearg and they ran Creggan very close in the group stages, a game I was at. They’ve a great attitude down there. We’ve lost a few semi-finals and people are probably expecting us to lose this one as well.

“But this group of players have plenty of experience themselves. You have to look forward, you can correct things as you go along, but you can’t be looking back.”

Injured Ryan Convery of Portglenone has been a huge loss to the side in 2023
Injured Ryan Convery of Portglenone has been a huge loss to the side in 2023 Injured Ryan Convery of Portglenone has been a huge loss to the side in 2023