Dunloy wait may go on as Slaughtneil not ready to give up crown
AIB Ulster Club SHC final: Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) v Cuchullain’s, Dunloy (Antrim) (tomorrow, Athletic Grounds, 1.30pm)
AFTER a few weeks of having recent history rammed down their throats and being forced to rake over the coals of past pain suffered at the hands of Slaughtneil, Dunloy will be glad of the opportunity to finally let their hurling do the talking in Armagh.
Tomorrow sees the latest instalment of a rivalry that has so far simmered rather than fully catching fire; it’s one-sided nature thus far something the Antrim champions are determined to rectify.
The head to head record doesn’t lie, however – it is five years since the first, the day cars packed full sat bumper to bumper waiting to get near Owenbeg for an eagerly-anticipated Ulster semi-final showdown.
On that occasion the Derry kingpins were simply too strong and too smart. The two meetings since have followed suit, with those anticipating Dunloy’s day was about to come left scratching heads on the way out the gate.
So why would it be different this time around? On the face of it, and given the conclusive nature of last year’s semi-final defeat at the same venue, the case for the Cuchullain’s is no easier to argue.
They come into tomorrow’s decider having sat in the long grass since their Antrim final win over Cushendall on October 16. Only tomorrow afternoon will we know whether that seven week gap was a blessing or a curse.
Players from both sides had football commitments from a part of the time that followed county glory, though Slaughtneil were at least able to blow off some cobwebs in a comprehensive semi-final victory over Portaferry a fortnight ago.
For the first 15 minutes, the rust was clear to see - second to breaks, sloppy mistakes, poor decision-making. But once they hit their stride, the Emmet’s were irresistible.
The awareness of space, the precision of passing and movement, and then the sheer physical power in and out of possession was simply too much for an emerging Ports side.
That combination has proved a shock to the system for Dunloy in the past too, so it will be intriguing to see what has been learned from previous encounters.
Can they bridge the gap to bring the Four Seasons Cup back to the village for the first time since 2010? As ever, and particularly when dealing with such a degree of familiarity, how the key match-ups go will ultimately decide the trophy’s destination.
Forward Brendan Rogers showed flashes of the threat he possesses the last day but, as the Cuchullain’s know to their cost, he has a tendency to save his best for the big days. Either Aaron Crawford or Ryan McGarry could be handed that job.
Paul Shiels remains a metronomic figure at the heart of this Dunloy side and, if passed fit to play, will try to dictate the tempo in the face of Slaughtneil’s all-action approach. Around the same area of the field, Brian Cassidy was superb against Portaferry, and Gregory O’Kane will be all too aware of his ability to ghost into space and do damage.
Keelan Molloy, Dunloy’s biggest danger with his blistering runs from deep, was well marshalled by Shane McGuigan last year.
With McGuigan playing a more advanced role at times, regularly showing the scoring ability with the sliothar that has become his stock in trade with the big ball, Michael McShane might fancy McGuigan’s chances of pushing Molloy back.
Another option might be to put Chrissy McKaigue onto Molloy, but having followed Daithi Sands’s every move at Corrigan Park, the 33-year-old looks more likely to shackle either Seann or Nigel Elliott, who wasn’t available last year. Cunning is another possibility, although brother Karl looks more likely to be handed that task.
Slaughtneil started experienced campaigners such as Mark McGuigan, Jerome McGuigan and Gerald Bradley on the bench against Portaferry, with Peter McCullagh, Ruairí Ó Mianáin and Shéa Cassidy justifying their selection.
Bradley, though, played sweeper last year to superb effect, and McShane might be tempted to draft him in once more to try and limit the amount of ball going into Dunloy’s pacy forwards.
Having been forced to bide their time before making the breakthrough at provincial level, Slaughtneil know well the hunger tomorrow’s opponents will bring as they bid to finally break through that glass ceiling.
With the Emmet’s showing no sign of letting up, however, Dunloy’s wait could extend into another year.