Hurling and camogie

Johnny Campbell on Cork, Cahill and bringing the Rebels to Corrigan

He was there the night Dinny Cahill let rip - opening the door for a Cork onslaught – but, as Antrim prepare to welcome the Rebels to Corrigan Park tomorrow, Johnny Campbell finds the view a bit different on the other side of the line. The Loughgiel man talks to Neil Loughran…

Johnny Campbell came up against Cork several times during his playing days with Antrim - including the infamous 2004 Championship meeting - and is part of Darren Gleeson's backroom team as the Saffrons prepare to welcome the Rebels to west Belfast tomorrow. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Neil Loughran

JOHNNY Campbell remembers well the moment Dinny Cahill sat down beside him after what should have been a run-of-the-mill press call at Casement Park.

This was July 20, 2004 - a Tuesday evening, five days before an All-Ireland quarter-final clash with a Cork side that had Liam MacCarthy in its sights.

Training over, the Antrim players who hadn’t been put up for media duties were grabbing something to eat, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding out on the field.

Cahill - by then in his third and ultimately final year during that first stint in charge of the Saffrons - had never been afraid to big his men up, even in the most esteemed company.

On this occasion, however, he went off into a stratosphere so far removed from the modern day managerial mantra of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ as to be almost scarcely believable 18 summers on.

For context, Antrim were 10/1 with the bookmakers to beat the Rebels at Croke Park, and 150/1 rank outsiders for the All-Ireland title. Cahill, riled by a fairly inconsequential question from one journalist regarding playing style, confidently predicted the Saffrons would do both.

“We’re going to win the All-Ireland this year,” he declared, to apparent laughter from some press members.

“We can win the All-Ireland if we get over this game. Once we get over this game, anything can happen from there. We are going to beat Cork. Why should we say we shouldn’t beat Cork?”

He didn’t stop there either.

Niall McCarthy, who would go on to claim an Allstar that year, was “a dreadful centre-forward”, while the return of the experienced Brian Corcoran – “a man that’s finished” – was apparently a clear indication of the dire straits in which Donal O’Grady’s men found themselves.

Campbell was just clearing his plate when Cahill pulled up a chair.

“I’ll never forget it,” he sighs, “Dinny came in, got his food and sat down beside me. He was frothing at the mouth, in a rage.

“I can’t remember the comment or question that was put to him, but Dinny was coming at it from being a Tipperary man, going against Cork, not Antrim, which I could understand. And that’s why he let loose.

“Still I was wondering what had been so bad, or what had happened, and then I saw the paper the next day and thought oh my God…

Any notion that only their own complacency could threaten Cork ambitions evaporated the second word spread. It didn’t take long for Cahill’s comments to travel the length of Ireland. Message and motivation received, loud and clear.

Confirmation, as if it was needed, came at Dublin’s Burlington Hotel where both counties were staying ahead of the game.

“That was strange alright,” recalls Campbell.

“I remember me and DD Quinn got into a lift, we were going down to the reception, next thing the doors opened and there was Seán Óg [Ó hAilpín] and Donal Óg [Cusack] standing looking at us. They just says ‘we’ll get the next one boys’ - they wouldn’t even get in the lift.

“It had obviously stoked them… they came and did a professional job, wiped the floor with us.”

The eventual All-Ireland champions won by 22 points in a game that was all but over by the quarter hour mark. Corcoran rammed Cahill’s words back down his throat, bagging 2-1 before half-time.

Campbell had the onerous task of picking up Ben O’Connor, and was replaced by Johnny McIntosh seven minutes into the second half after a rough afternoon. It remains the most painful memory from his playing days.

“Ahh, stop… I was completely cleaned out.

“That was my worst day ever on a hurling pitch. On the day, so many parts fell down from a team perspective, myself being one of them, if not the biggest… we just were totally outclassed.

“Sometimes you just have to hold your hand up.”

Campbell would go to face the Rebels again when they travelled up to Casement Park for a National League game in 2008, and two years later – with Cahill back in the hotseat - Antrim caused their illustrious opponents bother at times in the All-Ireland quarter-final before eventually succumbing to a nine-point defeat.

At Corrigan Park tomorrow, the Saffrons come up against Cork for the first time since. There is still a Tipperary native steering the ship, though there is zero chance of Darren Gleeson – as measured a man as you will come across - going off on a solo run that sees him splashed across the back pages.

Campbell has been Gleeson’s right hand man since he took up the reins in 2020, commencing a journey that has twice brought Antrim Joe McDonagh Cup glory and, more importantly, seen them retain their place in Division One of the League, ensuring shoulders are regularly rubbed with hurling’s elite.

Nobody is better placed to weigh up the different eras and, while the Saffrons are longer odds than in 2004 - around 12/1 to pull off an upset - Campbell insists there is no comparison between Antrim then and Antrim now.

“Genuinely, thinking back on 2010, there was that excitement you always got going into big games, but it was more in hope than expectation. It’s completely different to now, and I can say that hand on heart.

“There’s a genuine expectation for those boys to go out and perform every day – that’s not management putting pressure or anything like that, the work they put in, they’re demanding of themselves.

“The preparation the fellas have put in, compared to ourselves at that stage, it’s night and day. I’ve seen both, I’ve experienced both. We wouldn’t have had 31 players at training every night, going balls out at training every night, doing everything asked of them outside of the pitch as well.

“Culture-wise, it’s completely different. You did have your leaders and certain people who gave everything, but there wasn’t the collective that’s there now - that real want to succeed for each other.

“That’s the difference, and that’s hopefully what’s going to get us to the next level.”

Tickets for tomorrow’s All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final against Kieran Kingston’s men went on sale at 12pm on Wednesday, and were sold out within half an hour.

Antrim supporters have seen Clare, Wexford, Dublin and Waterford come to Corrigan in recent years, but this is the first big Championship clash to hit west Belfast in many a year.

“Isn’t it brilliant?” says Campbell.

“You just wish you had Casement there to many more people in, but we really enjoy playing at Corrigan. You saw even there at the weekend [at the McDonagh Cup final win over Kerry in Croke Park] the amount of young kids down from development squads, from different clubs with buses… those people coming to Corrigan during the League has helped sow those seeds. You can see it.

“The fellas have generated that interest in the county again, and we have to keep building that momentum.”

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Hurling and camogie