Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final: McQuillan's Ballycastle v St John's, Belfast (tomorrow, Dunsilly, 1pm)
JOINT manager Shane Staunton makes the irrefutable point: Antrim hurling needs a strong Ballycastle senior team. Bit by bit, the McQuillan’s are making gains after a difficult few years, post-2015.
How Ballycastle lost the 2015 county final to Cushendall remains an unresolved mystery in the annals of Antrim hurling.
A freakish end to the game where the width of a crossbar in Dunloy went some way to derailing another Ballycastle dynasty. Two years later, Ronan Donnelly’s brilliant team was obliterated, mostly by emigration.
Staunton, who was on the 2015 Ballycastle panel only to retire a year later, says: “I think if that team had stayed together we probably would have gone on and won a championship.
“But different lads went their separate ways. Probably 24 months after that final we’d lost 10 or 11 of that starting team. A lot of those boys were in their prime too.”
Joint bosses Staunton and Kevin-Barry McShane are digging new foundations at the club, helped no less by back-to-back minor final appearances a couple of years back.
The likes of Ronan Laverty, Mark McClean, Seamus McAuley, Joe McToal, Tiernan Smyth and Jack McGowan have all made the tentative step up to senior. Ballycastle have something tangible to work with at senior grade again.
Whether they’ve enough lessons absorbed at this stage of their young careers to make a significant dent on a seasoned St John’s team in tomorrow’s quarter-final at Dunsilly is a moot point.
As with any inexperienced crew, McShane and Staunton can expect a fair bit of turbulence over the next couple of seasons. In fact, they’ve already encountered quite a bit in this season’s senior championship – suffering heavy losses and learning loads against group opponents Dunloy and O’Donovan Rossa.
In their final group game earlier this month, they claimed the bragging rights, as they were expected to do, against neighbours Carey Faughs to book their place in the knock-out stages.
They’ve a decent spine to their team too with experienced duo Mattie Donnelly and Neal McAuley offering themselves as two major road blocks to the Johnnies attack tomorrow.
Further forward Conor Boyd is a slippery and accurate attacker for Ballycastle and was only eclipsed against Carey by corner-forward Tiernan Smyth who has assumed free-taking duties following the injury to Ciaran Clarke.
“Tiernan’s a former goalkeeper,” Staunton says. “He’d a really good game in the reserve semi-final against Cushendall – he was 10 out of 10 in the frees – and I think he was eight out of eight against Carey.”
The Johnnies’ championship season has been a mixed bag to date. They burst out of the blocks against Loughgiel in their opener but were almost caught going down the home straight when the Shamrocks threw the shackles off.
They shot the lights out against St Enda’s before struggling against Cushendall in their final group game, albeit with qualification to the knock-out stages already secured.
St John’s boss Brian McFall gave his players – and himself – a touch for their poor showing against the Ruairi Ogs. They have injury worries, which is part of the gig at a dual club come championship time.
Down ace Oisin MacManus has shown glimpses of his undoubted quality and has added a new dimension to the Johnnies attack. Michael Dudley and Michael Bradley are also big players and help move the scoreboard, and the injury-plagued Domhnall Nugent could do damage, if only in a cameo appearance tomorrow.
And the west Belfast men have no shortage of dogged defenders in their ranks.
For both teams, a good start is absolutely key.
For Ballycastle, sprinting out of the blocks will give their young players confidence to take the game to their opponents.
A sprint start for St John’s could completely demoralise this youthful Ballycastle team, shorn of their talisman Ciaran Clarke.
Success comes in different guises.
For Ballycastle, it’s the small gains within games, moulding and cajoling a young group and preparing them to make stronger assaults on the Antrim championship down the line.
For St John’s, it’s about the hard currency of silverware at this stage. It’s about progressing and ultimately winning the Volunteer Cup for the first time in nearly 50 years.
But Shane Staunton is absolutely right.
“Antrim hurling needs Ballycastle at the top table. Kevin-Barry and me are under no illusions – we’ve got a rebuilding job to do here for the next couple of years. We’d two tough games against Dunloy and Rossa but we’re only going to get stronger for that.”
The Johnnies should reach the last four by tomorrow evening.