Football

Michael McShane interview: Biding his time

Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane has been in charge for nine years, during which time they've won four Ulster titles. Victory over Cushendall on Sunday would move them within one of his native Ballycastle on the roll of honour. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane has been in charge for nine years, during which time they've won four Ulster titles. Victory over Cushendall on Sunday would move them within one of his native Ballycastle on the roll of honour. Picture: Margaret McLaug Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane has been in charge for nine years, during which time they've won four Ulster titles. Victory over Cushendall on Sunday would move them within one of his native Ballycastle on the roll of honour. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

SCHOOLBAG turfed to the floor, uniform fired off, Michael McShane was straight back out the front door with the hurl in his hand. 

Every evening, he and Alex Campbell would walk out of McAuley Park and across to perfect their first touch on the climbing white walls of Ballycastle's RUC station that were ideally set back from the road. 

They’d stay there until they were called for supper.

At night, McShane would lie awake in bed listening to the sound of the steel gates being wrestled open and the Land Rovers roaring up and down, thinking it so out-of-kilter with the day-and-daily experience of the pedestrian gate being opened for them to retrieve their off-target sliotars.  

On Sunday, the lifelong friends will be stood in front of the Slaughtneil bench beneath the cascading stand at Páirc Esler, in the thick of an Ulster final. 

These days were a regular childhood occurrence. 

Michael and his sister Una would have spent the week of a county final making flags and hats that they’d sell at the Diamond, where everyone in The Town congregated to wave the team off before departing themselves.

There’d be an annual competition for best banner. Their father Brian got one made up that was illuminated by the McQuillans’ club motto, ‘death before dishonour’. 

Another one in honour of club legend Peter Boyle, nicknamed Porky, read: ‘When Porky Boyles, the Castle sizzles’. 

When Ballycastle stunned Loughgiel to win Antrim in 1964, Michael had six uncles on the team - three McShanes and three Elliotts - and his father Brian was on the management. 

“I really had no choice but become involved in hurling. It was steeped in both sides of the family,” says the Slaughtneil boss. 

Watching his elder brother Kevin win six Ulster Club and six Antrim championships, play on the first Antrim club team ever to reach an All-Ireland final, Michael blackened the barracks’ walls with impatience. 

His senior championship debut was in 1988 and he played until he finally took the advice of his body after a bad hamstring tear almost 20 years later. 

He won nothing. Living in London for a few years, he missed the county finals of ’92 and ’93, losing deciders in ’96, ’98 and 2001, the last of which he was captain for. 

When they met Cushendall in ’96, McShane had the ball in the net within three minutes but in a classic, they lost out to the brilliance of Conor McCambridge, who hit 2-4. 

That’s the same tally McShane registered in ‘98, including a rocket of a goal from 30 yards, but they were well beaten by a Dunloy side banned from going into Ulster because of their row with Lavey at the end of the previous year’s final. 

So without winning an Antrim title, Ballycastle ended up in the provincial final. 

They survived the first day against Ballygalget when big Malachy Dallas went from corner-back to full-forward and caused the carnage that allowed them to snatch a replay with two late goals. 

The replay was still level in injury-time at the end of extra-time before Martin Coulter settled it with two late frees. That’s still the one that sticks in McShane’s craw, but he’s mostly let it all go. 

“I don’t consume myself with regret about that or wishing I’d been born earlier to have won all those medals. 

“I played on teams that tried their very best and didn’t get over the line. 

“I had a great career. Some players get cut short by injury and don’t get as many years as I did. I’m glad for what I did get and I’m lucky to have had success in my managerial career.” 

For almost two decades this diminutive corner-forward would, given the right ball, run rings around bigger men. 

One-by-one, every Antrim manager delivered the same news: ‘Sorry Michael, if you were six inches taller you’d be on the team’. 

“I remember my friends and that were getting selected for the county, going away playing against the top teams around the country, playing in Ulster finals against Down and Derry in Casement that were fabulous days out with massive crowds at that time. 

“You’re sitting going ‘I’d love to be in the mix there, playing in it’.  

“I believed, even with my lack of height, I could still have survived… Maybe that’s not the right word. 

“I was able to do it at minor and U21 but at senior level it was an issue that management couldn’t get over. I didn’t dwell on it. 

“It wasn’t to be. It’s the cards you were dealt, you get on with it.” 

In the late ‘90s he was living in Magherafelt when Kevin McNaughton took the Derry job.  

He went up training in Owenbeg with a view to transferring but Antrim blocked it. 

That Oak Leaf team went on to win back-to-back Ulster titles and run Offaly close in a famous All-Ireland quarter-final. 

“That probably annoyed me more than anything at that time,” he says. 

“Antrim didn’t want me to play for them or didn’t feel I was good enough, Derry did.” 

Sometime things just are the way they are.  

Like, when he was five, he was sat with his parents at mass in the packed local chapel as a second collection plate was sent around, keeping everybody back an extra few minutes. 

Next thing, the windows are in around them. 

A loyalist car bomb had been timed to go off as the 800 worshippers inside were leaving. 

He remembers his own frightened tears and those of his mother. 

Fifty people were injured, three of them seriously, but no lives were lost. 

“Those extra five minutes were the difference...” 

Timing fell with him that day. It didn’t for his playing career the way it has in management.

Cookies crumble the way they crumble. 

_______________________________

CLOSE to an hour after the game, the Tyrone players were all around on the other side of the stadium getting into the swing of things in the players’ lounge. 

Media commitments held Michael McShane back. When he returned to the dressing room, the only man left was Damian Casey. 

Words were as futile then as they would be a few weeks later. Casey had done his talking on the green sward, hitting 0-14 as Tyrone won the Nicky Rackard Cup. 

The late Damian Casey, who led Tyrone to the Nicky Rackard Cup under Michael McShane just weeks before he tragically passed away.
The late Damian Casey, who led Tyrone to the Nicky Rackard Cup under Michael McShane just weeks before he tragically passed away. The late Damian Casey, who led Tyrone to the Nicky Rackard Cup under Michael McShane just weeks before he tragically passed away.

It was January 2021 when Casey had first rung him. 

“Damian was the reason I went to Tyrone. It was him that contacted me, it was him had the conversations with me and him convinced me it was the right thing to do.” 

Initially, McShane had seen it as the perfect entrance exam for inter-county management. One where the eyes of the world weren’t paying much heed. 

In the three seasons that followed, Tyrone won the Nicky Rackard, achieved their highest ever league status in Division 2B and retained their place in both this year. 

As the Christy Ring decider bubbled into life above them, they walked the concourse together in near-silent satisfaction. 

“I’d asked him the night before in the hotel to go and do that. I said: ‘This is your arena to show how good you are, go out and do it’. And he done it. 

“We were walking around under the stand, just delighted, life was good. That’s your memory, to think around walking around chatting to him, how great life is, to a few weeks later you’re burying him. 

“The night I got the news… I even find it difficult now talking about it. Sometimes you have to stop and give yourself a shake and say ‘this actually did happen?’.  

“Young man, an absolute gentleman who had everything going for him – his whole life ahead of him, lovely fella, good job, good-looking big lad.  

“We got all the Tyrone players together on the Monday night, just to get into a room together and hug and cry and talk to each other.  

“I’ll never forget Sean Óg Grogan saying ‘all the bastards there are out on the streets of this world, why does a good guy like that have to be taken?’ It’s so true. 

“They say God only takes the good ones. Damian was one of the best.” 

_______________________________

THE coaching bug came from his father. 

Brian McShane passed away in late 2020, a matter of weeks after having been diagnosed with cancer. 

When Michael managed Ballycastle from 2012 to ’14, Brian carried out the last remaining role he had to fill in the club. 

“He was my stick carrier on the sideline with me, and wouldn’t have been behind the fence in coming telling me what I needed to do if things weren’t going well. 

“My father had a good life. He was content at the end of his life. We had some great chats. 

“I’ll always be forever grateful to him, he sowed the seed of a love of hurling in me.” 

For those three years, Michael drove from where they were living in Maghera back home to Ballycastle. 

He stepped down at the end of 2014, took the Slaughtneil job in January 2015 and moved back to Ballycastle two months later, flipping the journey on itself. 

Nine seasons have brought nine county titles and four Ulsters.

No club in Derry had ever won one but the Emmet’s knew they were getting close when they took Cushendall to a replay under Mickey Glover in 2014.

The following winter the Glensmen needed extra-time again to push on towards the All-Ireland club final in which they were beaten by Na Piarsaigh.

Then the dam broke at Loughgiel’s expense.

Incrementally, they have gotten closer to an All-Ireland final.  

Cuala were too strong.  

Na Piarsaigh presented them with an opportunity they just weren’t ready to take.  

Then Ballyhale came to Newry and Colin Fennelly was the man fit to deal with the voltage that ran beneath the turf in Páirc Esler. 

Michael McShane with Brendan Rogers after this year's Derry final, their 11th consecutive county title, nine of which McShane has been manager for. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Michael McShane with Brendan Rogers after this year's Derry final, their 11th consecutive county title, nine of which McShane has been manager for. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin Michael McShane with Brendan Rogers after this year's Derry final, their 11th consecutive county title, nine of which McShane has been manager for. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

For the first five minutes of the game and the ten after half-time, Ballygunner made hay in 2021.  

The other 45 minutes Slaughtneil got on top of but despite getting the gap down to one a couple of times, they couldn’t close it.

Twice in those nine years McShane has thought time was up. The second was after losing to Dunloy in last year’s final but the first was when they looked exhausted as Ballycran ripped through them in Corrigan Park in 2018. 

Antrim had come knocking then as they sought to replace Terence McNaughton and Dominic McKinley, and he seriously considered it. In the end, he said no. 

Denise had just had their third child. He didn’t feel ready for a job like that. 

Mostly he felt that he owed it to Slaughtneil. 

If deep down he was scared to let go and watch somebody else come in and maybe push them over the line, you wouldn’t blame him, but he is adamant that’s not it. 

“I felt a sense of loyalty to those lads. For four years I’d asked them for everything and they’d never failed to do it. 

“You can imagine Brendan Rogers, Chrissy McKaigue, Shane McGuigan coming from the environment they’re in with Derry. They demand that same environment in the club. If I’m not on my game, I’ll be told it. 

“If you have a group of shrinking violets that say nothing, that will lead to defeat. The group of lads I’m managing will put their hand up and say ‘that’s not good enough’. That has happened in the past. 

“If I tell a player he’s not playing up to standard, I expect him to be able to accept that. I’m not doing it to diminish him, but you want them to be the best they can be. 

“We set our standards very high because it’s the only way we’ll ever get to the top.”

Victory on Sunday would bring Slaughtneil within one of Ballycastle on the provincial roll of honour.

Michael McShane just had to bide his time.