Hurling and camogie

'I put the hurl in below the armpit, wiped it clean and says right, go again...'

Matthew Donnelly lost the flight of the sliothar for Kerry's goal on Sunday, but bounced back impressively. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Neil Loughran

THE journey from Croke Park to Casement started around 12.30pm yesterday. Fair to say there weren’t too many early risers among the Antrim ranks the morning after the night before, songs and celebrations stretching into the small hours as Sunday’s Joe McDonagh Cup success was toasted time and again.

When the time comes to leave the Skylon Hotel, the panel gathers up and danders along Drumcondra Road as a beautiful winter sun spreads out over Dublin.

Two buses await them back at Croke Park, scene of the Saffrons’s two-point victory over Kerry, a fourth win over Fintan O’Connor’s men inside 12 months – the perfect finish to as perfect a year as they could have hoped for.

The party is far from over yet too. For some it didn’t really stop, and you can only sympathise with those feeling the worse for wear as Matthew Donnelly - phone to one ear, hand clasped over the other – tries to make himself heard over the thumping dance track and intermittent cheers in the background.

Sources confirm Paddy Burke as the culprit, though he is not without accomplices as the Monday club kicks into gear.

Donnelly, though, is clear of head and feeling fresh as a daisy. He is in no way preachy but, as a pioneer, the notion just never took him.

“I worked in a bar in Ballycastle from I was 13 until about 20 and you see all the stuff that goes on… it was never for me. The eldest brother doesn’t drink, the wee sister doesn’t drink," says the McQuillan's man.

“Don’t get me wrong, I might drink at some point but at the minute it just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ll keep it that way for the meantime. And anyway, that just means I can recall every single minute of everything last night…”

You couldn’t blame the 28-year-old for wanting to take it all in.

Three years before he was born, Donnelly’s father Brian played in the Antrim team that was swept aside by Tipperary in an All-Ireland final. There were family connections all over the field that day.

Second cousin Cormac, son of ’89 full-back Terence, wore the number three jersey with distinction too before injury cruelly brought a halt to a career just taking flight.

The last time Antrim made it to Croke Park three years ago, a knee injury forced Matthew Donnelly out of the first 15 picture. By the time he entered the action with 20 minutes to go, the game was long gone, Carlow having already run riot to claim the Christy Ring Cup with plenty to spare.

“The occasion got to us that day. This time we were a lot more prepared, we prepped the week before, we knew what our warm-up was going to be, we knew what was happening so it was only a matter then of going out and trying to perform.”

And for the first 19 minutes on Sunday, everything went more or less to plan.

A James McNaughton point had left Antrim four points to the good, while the couple of times Kerry had gone put the sliothar in on top of target man Mikey Boyle, Donnelly managed to avert the danger.

But when Shane Nolan floated a harmless high ball towards the square seconds after the water break, Donnelly misjudged its flight. Boyle looked as surprised as anyone to see the ball land in his paw before firing underneath Ryan Elliott to drag the Kingdom back into it.

“Ah, to be honest,” he begins before breaking into a laugh, “the sun up the end of the pitch was very low. It was shining in my eyes, but it was quite hard to judge the flight of the ball in that sort of empty environment.

“We were pucking about in the warm-up beforehand and boys were over-hitting the ball… it was hard to judge. I saw it coming in and I was going to catch it, then I realised it was going on over my head, next thing I took a swipe at it but there was a hole in the hurl!

“I completely missed it, just an air ball...”

Nerves jangled slightly as Darren Gleeson’s men went from comfortable and in control to edgy in the remaining quarter hour, Kerry nudging their noses in front by a point.

Donnelly had let out a yell of frustration after Boyle’s goal but swiftly regained his composure. He thought of words Gleeson has drilled into them over the past 12 months but, most of all, pride told him it couldn’t happen again.

“Ah look, I put the hurl in below the armpit, wiped it clean and says ‘right, go again, let’s win the next ball’. Darren’s worked on that with us all year… blue heads. If you go into the red make sure you get back into the blue and keep calm, win the next ball. That’s all you can do in those situations.

“Mikey Boyle’s a great guy to be fair to him and he can be very dangerous. Three years ago they played us up in Cushendall, Mikey Boyle was number six, they moved him up into number 11 and he tore us to shreds.

“He’s a good player but I just thought wherever he goes, I’m going to go with him and break the ball, make sure he doesn’t get it in his hand.

“Even though we started the second half well Kerry dug deep, they kept throwing everything at us. Boyle went off, they played a three man full-forward line, brought Shane Conway up the pitch again and tried to get ball into him.

“But we have depth in the squad, the boys we brought on put in a serious shift, got scores when it mattered and kept us ahead. At the end, it’s just relief. You’re just glad to have the job done.”

They enjoyed the moment but then, in another quirk of this strangest of years, both Antrim and Kerry had to exit the premises, unable to stay and watch Limerick dispatch Waterford in the All-Ireland final as a result of the Irish government’s current position on spectators.

That it was Antrim captain Conor McCann leaving with the Joe McDonagh Cup in his hands softened the blow, however.

“There was a bit of debate about what we would do during the week, and the decision was made that we’d book a function room in the Skylon and - win, lose or draw - we’d all go back, put on the All-Ireland final and enjoy it.

“It was a great night, everybody stayed in and chatted… you don’t actually get to experience something like that too often. You go to training, you’re there 45 minutes beforehand, you’ll puck about – ‘well, what’s the craic? Och, very little’. Just small talk, y’know?

“But last night people got to relax, you got to chat to people you don’t always get to chat to… I really enjoyed it. When you go to club, you’re passionate for the club and when you go to the county, that’s what matters.

“We’re all pulling in the one direction. We all had one vision this year, to get promoted and win the Joe McDonagh – whatever it takes, let’s do it. And we did.”

Music blared as the two buses containing all the socially distanced members of the Saffron party made their way back to Belfast. First stop – Casement Park. Getting back there, that’s the big one, the central cog in the Antrim story as it stands.

For the class of 2020 though, the challenge now is to back this up. Donal Og Cusack has already shared his doubts, the former Cork goalkeeper expressing his concerns that “they are going to suffer a lot of beatings” in Division 1B next year.

Cusack’s words were the subject of some debate among the Antrim players on Sunday night and, rather than reflecting some of the outrage that followed those comments, Donnelly accepts there is a gap to bridge.

“Aye, we all heard what was said - listen, it is what it is.

“I suppose yesterday [against Kerry] wasn’t maybe the greatest hurling display. The problem is maybe people comparing us with the game after, but Limerick are miles ahead of everybody at the minute. We’re back up in Division One, we’ll definitely be underdogs in every game but we’ve nothing to lose.

“We’ve shown we want to get better. The Kerry manager came in after the match and was saying ‘you couldn’t still be hungry’, but we were hungry for it. Especially our training sessions, boys were absolutely gutted they didn’t make the 26, never mind the 15.

“But look, it’s important to enjoy this moment for what it is too. Plenty of people had good words of wisdom for me going into the match, which was great. All those people, all our families, would’ve loved to have been there of course… and I’ve two young boys at home, Caoimhin and Sean Og, who would’ve loved to be there too.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to celebrate with them.”

The Antrim players and management went straight to Casement Park after returning home from Dublin yesterday. Picture by Mal McCann

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Hurling and camogie