Doherty not daunted by prospect of facing Antrim champions
THEY’VE already broken one hoodoo by finally ousting one of the north Antrim big boys – and St John’s are aiming to get another monkey off their backs by ending a series of semi-final defeats on Sunday.
The Johnnies lost out in the last four in 2018 and 2019, beaten after a replay by Cushendall on both occasions, before eventually succumbing to Loughgiel Shamrocks when an unforgettable semi-final went to extra-time last year.
With reigning county champions Dunloy standing between St John’s and a first Antrim championship final appearance since 1994, there could be no bigger task.
But goalkeeper Simon Doherty insists the challenge of going toe-to-toe with Gregory O’Kane’s Cuchullain’s is driving them on – while the west Belfast men are brimming with confidence after getting the better of Loughgiel in the quarter-final.
It took a brilliant Doherty save late in the day to keep the Shamrocks at bay, and the Armagh native says that win has “given everybody in the club a massive lift”.
“It was great to finally beat one of the three north Antrim teams – it’s the first time in a long time we’ve done that in championship.
“We showed tremendous character as a group, and belief in each other, especially in the last 15 minutes because we had been eight points ahead and they pegged us right back, got it level, but we showed great composure to get over the line.
“The semi-final is another hurdle we have stumbled at over the years. Sunday is a massive challenge, and we have the utmost respect and admiration for Dunloy. County champions three out of the last four years, I personally have great respect for them as a team but also as people.”
Indeed, Doherty knows several of Sunday’s opponents better than most.
Having previously managed the Ulster University hurlers, he worked with the likes of Conal Cunning, Ryan Elliott, Ryan McGarry and Conor Kinsella, and is well aware of the problems Dunloy pose as they bid to hold onto the Volunteer Cup.
However, after missing out on last year’s campaign due to a plantar fascia injury, Doherty is just glad to be back out in club colours.
“It was a real freak injury, more associated with marathon runners, and I’m certainly no marathon runner. Anything outside the square is a test for me!
“It came at a terrible time, just as the championship was about to start. We played a league game earlier this year and I remember saying to one of my team-mates ‘this is my first game in Corrigan Park in nearly two years’. It’s crazy how time flies.
“We’re very thankful it has been such a positive season. Last year was difficult because you only had one game then you were straight into the championship, where this year we’ve had incremental improvement through the group stage, leading into the quarter-final against Loughgiel.
“Gradually we’ve improved, bit by bit.”
And the “togetherness” of Brian McFall’s side has been the key to the Johnnies’ success so far, insists Doherty.
“We know we’re privileged people to have the opportunity to represent out club.
“Over the last couple of months, one of our members who we’d all be very close to has been very seriously ill, in intensive care, and please God he’s starting to come out on the right side, but that really puts sport in perspective.
“Any time we step out together as a team, we have the opportunity to represent our club and try to make people happy. We have suffered heartache over the last number of years but we have the motivation to be successful, and Sunday is a massive opportunity for us to test ourselves against the best team in the county and see can we bring some happiness back to our people.”