Paul Shiels happy to be back in the saddle for Dunloy in Antrim
O'Neill's Antrim ACHL Division One: Loughgiel Shamrocks v Cúchullain's, Dunloy (Sunday, 1.30pm)
WHILE Antrim champions Dunloy have had a patchy start to their spring league campaign, Paul ‘Shorty' Shiels is just glad to be back in the saddle.
Shiels has featured in both of the Cúchullain's opening games of their ACHL Division One campaign so far. Losing their opening encounter in Belfast to Rossa by a single point, Dunloy struck back to beat Portaferry by five at home last weekend.
“It was nice to get back out. There's a lot of fresh faces in now, I suppose a lot of minors coming through that Gregory's trying to get a look at, so it's just nice to get back out and hurling again,” said Shiels ahead of Sunday's local derby with Loughgiel.
As the Dunloy veteran says, manager Gregory O'Kane has put a strong emphasis on blooding some of the club's younger talent this term – a crop who have excelled at underage level in recent years.
“There's been maybe three minor championships in-a-row and there's been a lot of boys who've come on the panel the last few years and it's just about trying to get them game time and trying to get them up to speed playing senior hurling because there is a bit of a difference between senior and minor,” added Shiels.
“The Antrim league is very competitive and it is a great place to blood players, so that's what we'll try to do through the league. There was three lads made their debut there on Sunday [against Portaferry] – Conor Kinsella, Ronan Molloy and Declan Smith – and we still got the victory and it's nice for them boys to come in to a winning team and get a taste for it. All of them played well and it did us no harm.”
With the first win of the year under their belt, ‘Shorty', who retired from inter-county hurling last year to focus on his club duties, says things are hotting up nicely for the short trip to Loughgiel at the weekend.
“It's always a good game in the league,” he said.
“Although it's the league, neither team wants to lose that one, so it'll be a good game for both sets of players. It's nice to have it early in the season, it's something to look forward to. It'll get a bit of interest going around Dunloy again.”
That interest surely shouldn't be too hard in getting going again after Cúchuallain's heroics in last year's Antrim championship, taking their first title since 2009. Shiels, who played a key part in that championship victory, knows the ACHL is the place to smooth down any rough edges ahead of the defence of their title later in the year.
“The thing about Antrim's Division One is that it's dog eat dog,” he said.
“You've got the three county Down teams in there that are difficult to get points off when you travel to them. Then obviously, you've got Loughgiel, Cushendall and then the two city teams, you can't really take your eye off the ball. As was proved on the first day, Rossa nipped us. There's no easy games in it. It's no bad thing either because, every week, you're preparing for a game that's a good test for you.
“The holy grail is the championship and that's where we're setting our sights again. It'll be very hard again this year. I think the team's that's in it – Cushendall, Loughiel – are gonna be hard to beat again; Rossa's an up and coming team, the Johnnies [St John's], from last year I'm sure Ballycastle will be hurting.
“It's really competitive, anybody that's in it really can beat anybody on their day.”