'It was a game to be won, and it had to be Slaughtneil': Gregory O'Kane savours Dunloy victory
AIB Ulster Club SHC final: Robert Emmet’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) 0-16 Cuchullain’s, Dunloy (Antrim) 2-12
GREGORY O’Kane is not a man given to wild emotion or over-the-top statements in either victory or defeat and, on days like yesterday’s dramatic Ulster final defeat of rivals Slaughtneil, his eyes give more away than his mouth.
As a player, O’Kane was an inspirational figure for so many years, the force of his personality helping shape and mould Dunloy’s destiny during the most successful period in the club’s history.
As a manager, though, he has never clung onto the past, existing only in the here and now. At the Athletic Grounds, he was one of the last men into the changing room, soaking up every second out on the field with family and friends long after the dust had settled on an epic encounter.
So much of the pre-match narrative going into yesterday’s decider surrounded recent Ulster Championship meetings between these clubs – 2017 semi-final, 2019 final, last year’s final. On each occasion Dunloy were a distinct second best.
Yet, while others may have lost faith, O’Kane never did. Yesterday - and the dogged, determined nature in which the balance of power tipped in their favour - was vindication for never getting too up or too down when the destination dipped in and out of view.
“We are overjoyed,” he said.
“It’s great to get over the line in an Ulster final… it was probably the day that this team evolved again. It was a game to be won and it had to be Slaughtneil. That’s where it was today.
“In 2019, Slaughtneil beat us in an Ulster final, and I think we finished that match with something like eight U21s. Two of them were U20 – that’s the majority of your team. That team needs to develop. That 19-year-old now is 23, and so on.
“Physicality, big game experience, it takes all that. Probably today, we were able to match Slaughtneil physically, and the hurling then took over…”
And yet, despite leading by seven just after half-time, Dunloy were forced to dig in as Slaughtneil came firing back. The dying moments required strength of body and mind. On neither front were they found wanting.
“We are a very proud club, but we are also Antrim men. We are Antrim people,” said O’Kane.
“Antrim puts a lot of effort in, but just to get ourselves, and then an Antrim team to the top of the tree… to be fair to Slaughtneil, they have brought the Ulster Championship to an unbelievable level.
“We needed to go to that level to get over the line and thankfully we did.”
The Cuchallain’s now turn their attention to an All-Ireland semi-final date with Galway champions St Thomas’s on December 17/18 – and O’Kane hopes the GAA powers-that-be can serve up a pre-Christmas cracker at Croke Park.
“I see Thurles is closed by all accounts, so you’d be thinking a double-header in Croke Park, would you not?
“Dunloy in an All-Ireland club series. Jesus! We’re just looking forward to the next challenge that comes.”
Further down the line, it was a tough one to take for Slaughtneil boss Michael McShane.
The Derry champions were hoping to lift the Four Seasons Cup for the third year in-a-row, but McShane feels it was the pain of past defeats that drove Dunloy across the line.
“We were below par and I don't want that to come across as underestimating what Dunloy have done here today in winning an Ulster.
“They were thundering into every tackle they were savagely hungry. They just looked like a team that had been hurt so many times and they were playing with that hurt.”
However, the Ballycastle man insists his Slaughtneil side is far from finished.
“I’ve just said to the players in the changing room there, not for one second will I be criticising any of them. They have done so much service to Slaughtneil, to Derry hurling, to Ulster hurling over the last number of years, we have competed at the top level.
“And I’ll say now, absolutely guarantee you, that this Slaughtneil team will be back here in another Ulster final in the not too distant future - and it’ll be us coming with the hurt next time.”