Hurling and camogie

Dunloy's big breakthrough heralded 30 years of success

Dunloy are the dominant force in Antrim at the minute, with the Cuchullain's targeting a third county title on the trot against Rossa on Sunday. However, Willie Richmond remembers the long wait to land the first – and the day the seal was finally broken. He talks to Neil Loughran…

The Dunloy side that finally ended the club's wait for an Antrim SHC title - defeating Rossa after a replay in 1990. Picture by Curly McIlwaine

THE minutiae might have diminished with each of the years that have passed, but some things about October 7, 1990 have never left Willie Richmond. Still he can see the early autumn sun that greeted their arrival in Belfast, the sound of the horns as the celebrations kicked in, feel the rosary beads clenched in his fist from first ball until last.

“They were tearing threads in my pocket,” he laughs, “I don’t know whether it did any good or not, but we got there…”

After a wait of 85 years, this was Dunloy’s day of reckoning – the first time the Volunteer Cup would find a home in the Cuchullain village, and against O’Donovan Rossa, the same opponents who lie in wait for Gregory O’Kane’s class of 2021 on Sunday.

For Richmond and so many others, there were times they wondered would it ever happen. He had played on sides that came up short against the great Loughgiel teams of the 1960s, with the famine carrying on into further decades, and further generations, thereafter.

“Ah, I played on teams that failed miserable a couple of times – in ’63 we lost to Loughgiel, then in ’67 we lost to Rossa up in Casement. We just never could get across the line.”

Yet while Cushendall broke through their own glass ceiling in 1981 before the dominant Ballycastle, Rossa in ’88 and Loughgiel - All-Ireland champions in ’83 - traded the upper hand, there was something building in Dunloy.

At juvenile level, they were the coming force in Antrim. In 1984 Dunloy won county titles at every grade. If they could just keep those boys together, then who knows? With the likes of Richmond and former Cuchullain’s team-mate Chris Elliott a guiding hand to the new crew, it was only a matter of time until the breakthrough came… surely?

However, when a young Dunloy outfit reached the 1990 decider, their first in 14 years, they were coming up against a side that was fully formed rather than armed with potential.

In men like Ger Rogan, Jim Close, current manager Collie Murphy and Allstar Ciaran Barr, Rossa – county champions in 1988 and defeated All-Ireland finalists in '89 – cast an imposing shadow.

Now part of a senior management team that included Seamus Elliott, Chris Elliott, Eugene Traynor and Aidan McCamphill, Richmond watched on as a last-gasp point from Tony McGrath saved their skin at Fr Healy Park in Loughgiel, securing another bite at the cherry.

Making the short trip home, though, the mood was mixed.

“A lot of people thought, well, that’s our chance gone,” says Richmond, whose sons Liam and Paddy would go on to wear the jersey with such distinction,

“But the management committee and the majority of the players, they weren’t that hard to convince that we could go to Belfast and beat Rossa. They believed that much in themselves.

“That team won everything that was put in front of them from U12. I think Alistair Elliott has five or six U12 medals. We had beaten Rossa in an U21 final too. Wee Ally, Gregory O’Kane, Gary O’Kane, Seamus McMullan, ‘Patch’ [Sean Mullan]… a lot of them boys all came through around the same time, and they didn’t hardly know how to lose.

“They were so used to winning all the time that they feared nobody, no matter who they played or where they played. That makes a fierce difference.”

When the replay was set for Casement Park, it fed into Dunloy’s bulletproof psyche. Richmond, and the rest, werer delighted to be taking the show on the road, far from north Antrim.

“Things had changed for us.

“By then, we were quite happy to go to Casement Park to play Rossa, St John’s or any of them. Before that, younger players might’ve been a wee bit shy about going up to the city, but these boys were never scared.

“After Tony grabbed that equaliser, we didn’t mind a bit going to Belfast to play the replay. As a matter of fact, we were happy enough. We relished it, if anything. We definitely did.

“We believed we were going to win the championship; we believed the end of that spell had gone and that we could win the championship. And to win it in Casement, that would be even better than if we’d done it in Loughgiel.”

Just like the first day, they would have to battle for every scrap as another titanic tussle unfolded.

Rossa edged ahead by four in the closing stages of the first half before Ally Elliott bagged the first of his two goals just before the break.

The 19-year-old struck again just when Dunloy needed him most, rattling the back of the net four minutes from the end, with the Cuchullain’s trailing by a point.

With the seconds ticking down, it was Tony McGrath who scored the final point of the game once more - this time the roar marking relief of a different kind.

Willie Richmond’s pockets may have paid the price for an afternoon’s devotion but, as a sea of green and gold took over the hallowed turf, finally history had been made.

“It was something that’ll never be forgotten in Dunloy. To make that breakthrough at long last, it was something special.

“It wasn’t that the management pulled anything out of the bag or anything like that, the players themselves thought that they could do it. And they did. It was nice for us too, don’t get me wrong. We couldn’t manage it in our own playing days so to taste victory while on the line was the next best thing.

“The scenes when we got back home will live long in my memory, that’s for sure. Even if they’d gone on and won an All-Ireland, I doubt we’d have seen anything like that again.”

Fast forward 31 years and 13 times since the Volunteer Cup has returned to the village, while Dunloy have swept to 10 Ulster titles and reached four All-Ireland finals.

The current crop is going for a third county championship in-a-row on Sunday, and a fourth in five years. Having waited so long for the first, such success is always to be savoured.

“Everybody said at that time the first one’s always the hardest to win, which is definitely true, because a lot of the others that came after were easier won than that,” says Richmond.

“All those players deserved an All-Ireland - unfortunately it just wasn’t to be. That’s sport, and sport can be very cruel.

“But I remember all too well the days of losing in quarter-finals, semi-finals… any time you’re winning, you enjoy it. Eighty-five years we waited for the first - we don’t take anything for granted.”

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Hurling and camogie