Hurling and camogie

Welcome to Dunloy. Welcome to the future...

The Dunloy players celebrate winning this season's Volunteer Cup at Ballycastle Picture: Seamus loughran.

As the Dunloy hurlers prepare to take on Down champions Ballycran in tomorrow's Ulster semi-final, Brendan Crossan delves into the history of the north Antrim club...

 

IF Dunloy ever decides to dabble in the guided tours market, there's no better front man than Shane Elliott.

Location-wise, he says, you couldn’t get better than the north Antrim village.

With the relatively new housing developments – Cairnview and Killimorrie – they're pushing the population northwards of 2,000 residents.

“Dunloy is quite accessible,” Elliott says. “If you go north you’ve Ballymoney and Coleraine; go south you’ve Ballymena and Antrim. If you want to go west you can easily go that way, and we’re close to the motorway so we can be in Belfast in 45 minutes.

“The employment rates in the village would be extremely low because, historically, we’ve always had good employers.

“So it’s an attractive place because you can move around to get where you need to be. I genuinely think that helps.

"And crime rates are virtually nil; there is no major problem with bad behaviour.

“While houses aren’t cheap they are affordable. It maybe sounds a bit glib, but I think it's a nice place to live."

And Elliott hasn’t even got to the GAA club yet where their facilities are not only the envy of Antrim but throughout Ulster and Ireland.

Sitting snugly between St Joseph's Primary School - a hotbed of Gaelic Games - and St Joseph's Church is Pearse Park, the heartbeat of the north Antrim village.

In one stunning corner of the ground stands a £1.2m Academy which will celebrate its 10th birthday next summer.

Inside you’ll find a 50m x 25m 4G Arena, studio rooms and a gym with a 300-strong membership at £15 per month. The gym never stops.

Officially opened by the-then President Christy Cooney in July 2010, the Cuchullains club is without doubt one of the most successful human co-operatives ever created by GAA hands.

“The building is always busy,” Elliott says.

“People feared it might be a bit of a white elephant and in the summer months it’ll not be used but at this time of year you’d struggle to get a slot in the evening times. The gym brings life to it as well. It's always a busy place.”

It all started with a modest ball wall. Then they needed a roof for the ball wall. After that, the project just got bigger and more ballsy.

“Make no bones about it, it was a big ask,” says one clubman.

“Our steering committee realised these were possibly the hardest times there have ever been but the thinking was, if we don’t do it now, we’d never do it. Everybody was contributing to ‘Club Dunloy’.

Back in the mid-2000s, the GAA contributed €300,000. The rest would come from the villagers’ hard-earned cash.

Despite the hardest recession ever to wreak financial havoc in Ireland, the diggers and cement mixers never ceased.

Elliott, the club and county’s former goalkeeper, adds: “When we went with the ambitious big building, it was right before the recession… People thought we were mad.

“Personally, I loved the idea but I thought we were financially over-stretching ourselves and that the focus would be on how we would pay for the building as opposed to what we were putting out on the grass.

“Thankfully, my fears on that were unfounded because it has helped what we’re putting out onto the grass. Financially, we’re in a good position.”

“One of the foundations you need for success, I suppose, is infrastructure and obviously people,” says former Dunloy forward and current senior team manager Gregory O’Kane.

“The academy has definitely helped but it doesn’t guarantee you success, nothing does.”

This year the Cuchullains club has won county titles in football, camogie and hurling.

The very best clubs recycle what they have.

In Dunloy, every player, quite literally, is a future underage coach.

Nobody recycles better than the Cuchullains...

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Ryan Elliott keeping goal for St Louis, Ballymena. In the 2015/16 season, he was one of a host of Dunloy players that won the Mageean Cup Picture: John McIlwaine

FERGUS McCambridge's effort off his left side never looked like having the legs to get over Dunloy's crossbar.

It should have been meat and drink to a goalkeeper of Ryan Elliott's quality. His defenders were already on the half turn ready to accept a short puck-out.

But county finals are as much mental as they are physical.

"I was caught in two minds," Elliott (21) recalls. "I didn’t know whether to go with the stick or my hand and I ended up going with my stick and by the time I made my decision it was too late. It was a soft one.”

Watching behind the wire, Shane Elliott felt his son's pain.

He's been there himself, caught in two minds and doing neither.

Ryan's uncharacteristic error handed the initiative to defending champions Cushendall.

“It made it a hard watch, there’s no doubt about that," says Shane.

“It was worse for his mother [Maire]. She couldn’t watch any more of it.

“But I knew Ryan would stick to the process because there were a couple of balls that came in on him after that and he showed for them, so I felt he regained his composure quickly. I didn’t have any serious concerns.

“I knew he’d good people around him too. Conor [McKinley, Dunloy full-back] would be talking to him.”

In the second half, with the two best teams in Antrim trying to wrestle control of the 2019 decider, Paddy McGill unleashed a wicked drive but Ryan Elliott somehow got the face of his hurl to the sloithar and turned it away to safety.

It was another turning point in a game that ebbed and flowed.

“It wasn’t even the save,” Shane says. “A lot of people wouldn’t pick this up, but it was actually a fella who is very tuned into the game who said to me afterwards that he knew Ryan was okay because as soon as he made the mistake his first puck-out went straight to hand.

“It is having that ability to settle yourself and recover and gather your composure again. I suppose he atoned somewhat for that in the second half.”

That afternoon, the Elliott lineage would have a major say in the destination of the Volunteer Cup.

Ryan’s cousins Nigel and Seaan - sons of Nigel senior - would ripple Cushendall’s net three times between them.

In first-half stoppage-time, Nigel buried a crucial major to reduce their rivals’ lead to just one point at the interval.

And Seaan, held in reserve for last month's final, was thrust into the action in the 40th minute.

Two touches later, the precocious 19-year-old had buried Cushendall’s prospects of retaining their title in McQuillan Park.

“I could see where Gregory and the boys were coming from by not starting Seaan in the final,” says Nigel Elliott senior, owner of nine county medals.

“The semi-final [against Loughgiel] was pretty physical and Seaan didn’t get a lot of space. But when the game opened up against Cushendall in the final he did well.

“The way the final went he probably wouldn’t have scored two goals if he’d started. He’s still only 19, still learning his trade, as Gregory says.”

At times, Nigel and Seaan’s father watched last month’s epic county final through clasped hands.

“To be honest, I’m probably more nervous watching the boys playing than when I was playing myself because you want them to do well and do their best.

“I just tell them to go out work hard, tackle plenty and get back. It’s not all about scoring goals.

"I mean, Gabriel McTaggart's catch was just as crucial towards the end of the game as Seaan's two goals.

"As long as they put in a good shift that’s the main thing.”

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FOR the best part of two decades that’s exactly what Nigel Elliott did when he donned the green and gold jersey.

No midfielder ever got it easy against him.

“Nigel was one of the unsung heroes of that 1990 team,” says Gregory O’Kane.

Throughout his playing career, O’Kane himself was a consistently brilliant marksman.

He played alongside Alistair Elliott for both club and county. In hurling terms, Alistair was pure silk.

Jarlath Elliott could fly too.

You had Gary O’Kane, the McMullans, Tony McGrath and Shane Elliott minding goal.

All of them weaved majestically together by Seamus Elliott's skilled hands – father to Shane and Nigel and grandfather to current senior panellists Nigel, Seaan, Ryan and Ciaran.

It was only a matter of time before Dunloy would annex the Volunteer Cup for the first time in their history, but nobody expected it to be as early as 1990.

During the 1980s, they couldn’t stop winning at underage level.

By the time they faced O’Donovan Rossa in the ’90 final, the easy consensus was the Falls Road men’s experience and greater physicality would keep the north Antrim men off the podium.

Laced with quality hurlers such as Ciaran Barr, Ger Rogan and Donal Armstrong, 'Rossa were seconds away from winning their 14th county title, until Tony McGrath popped up with a last-gasp equaliser for the Cuchullains.

Twenty-nine years ago this month, at an 8,000-strong Casement Park, two Alistair Elliott goals in the replay saw Dunloy reach the Holy Grail.

“That win in 1990 was huge for the village,” says Shane Elliott.

“I don’t think anything we’ll do will surpass that... I think that was the biggest day for the village and you can see that when you look back at the footage and the scenes of celebration, they’re just incredible to watch.

“We were young. I would only have been 20, Alistair [Elliott] and Gregory [O’Kane] would have been 19.

“But I think we got a sense of the enormity of it and how important it was to the community when we got back to Dunloy. After that it was three or four years before we won another one.

“Actually,” Shane adds, “the similarities between that team and the current team are a bit scary.

“We had huge underage success in the 80s. We were a bit of a golden generation who were expected to come through at some point but weren’t expected to come through in 1990.

“The current Dunloy team won in 2017 and probably weren’t expected to beat a strong Cushendall team at that stage and then Slaughtneil taught us a bit of a lesson [in Ulster] and Loughgiel [in Antrim] last year.

“We’re more mature now; I still think we’re two or three years off what we can be, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

Dunloy owned the minor title for four consecutive seasons up until Loughgiel Shamrocks emerged victorious this season.

Last year, the Cuchullain minors pulled off a fantastic hurling and football double.

For the likes of Ryan Elliott, Keelan Molloy, Eoin O’Neill, Conor Kinsella, Ciaran Elliott, Ryan McGarry, ‘Koby’ Cunning and Seaan Elliott their breakthrough year undoubtedly arrived when they claimed the Mageean Cup with St Louis Grammar, Ballymena in the 2015/16 season, beating St Mary’s CBGS, Belfast in the decider.

They were desperately unlucky to lose in the subsequent All-Ireland final to Abbey CBS of Tipperary after extra-time down in Thurles.

But in the hearts and minds of the Dunloy contingent, that was the season they planted a flag.

Minor and U21 titles followed as the young Cuchullains played with an unmistakable swagger that was the talk of the county.

“We’ve quite a few players who grew up playing ‘B’ hurling,” says Ryan Elliott.

“A lot of us Dunloy ones went to St Louis – I went there in fifth year - and we won the Casement Cup and the year after we won the Mageean Cup."

Of course, senior level is entirely different terrain and they’ve already experienced some turbulence, notably against Slaughtneil in 2017 and Loughgiel in 2018.

Down champions Ballycran certainly have the muscle to blow them off course when the sides meet in tomorrow’s intriguing Ulster match-up in Armagh.

But there is no doubting Dunloy’s rich potential, wonderful attacking flair and the infinite possibilities of what they can achieve over the next decade.

“People are generally staying around,” says Shane Elliott. “Now, we’ve been hit by emigration like everywhere else but we’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve kept all our talent.

“That could all change, of course.

“You could see from a very early age these boys had something about them. But you never know what they’ll develop into; will they fulfil their potential? Will they go travelling? Will they find all the other distractions?

“But we’re very lucky that they were coming into a set-up where we had the James McKeagues, the Kevin Molloys, the Paul Shiels’s, the Conor McKinleys, who weren’t going to take any egos.

“They weren’t going to accept a whole pile of young boys who won a load of stuff at underage and allow them to think that they’d it made. So that balance has certainly helped and of course Gregory [O’Kane] just wouldn’t accept that. So that’s built into the culture of the group.”

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THE great thing about Dunloy’s Academy is that everybody in the village owns it.

Of course, without the ceaseless volunteerism of its members the £1.2m building that towers over Pearse Park would be mere bricks and mortar.

A bit like Barcelona’s famous La Sagrada Familia, the work will always be on-going. Plans are already at an advanced stage to build a 4G pitch adjacent to the academy.

There are all sorts of payment plans for members.

“We make it affordable to everybody because they own it as well,” says one clubman.

“A good friend of mine once said: You put in but you don’t take out, and you leave it in a better place.”

The heroes of 1990 and those before them didn’t leave when their brilliant playing careers ended.

It’s a bit like The Firm. You just don’t leave. You can’t leave.

You’re simply moved to another part of the club.

When he retired, aged 38, Nigel Elliott senior took his sons’ teams from U12 up to minor.

Gary O’Kane and Alistair Elliott are back taking the U6s and U8s.

Paddy and Liam Richmond get their hands dirty, just like their father Willie.

Same with the McMullans, the McGraths, the Molloys, the Elliotts, the Shivers, the McKinleys, the McKeagues.

This is what the Cuchullains do. They keep building and nurturing and recycling.

And the wheel keeps on turning.

“There was a generation of hurlers who played and had great careers and great success,” says Gregory O’Kane.

“So many of them came back to coach teams in the club, so you’re probably seeing that being played out with this current generation of players.”

This exciting young Dunloy team that will aim to reach an Ulster final tomorrow afternoon didn’t emerge through the grace of God.

They were nurtured, coached, moulded and weaned on the finest Dunloy traditions.

“It’s nice playing with your friends but playing with your family and seeing the family names on the team sheet makes you proud,” says Ryan Elliott.

“I feel proud and I’m sure my grandad [Seamus Elliott] feels proud as well.”

Welcome to Dunloy. Welcome to the future…

 

 

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