Dunloy: Pushing boundaries and aiming higher each time
Dunloy native Brendan McTaggart charts the trajectory of the Dunloy hurlers over the past five years and how Gregory O'Kane is getting the best out of the cream of the Cuchullains as they prepare for Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final against Galway champions St Thomas's...
TO know where you’re going, you have to understand where you’ve been.
Something that’s came into my head in recent times when it comes to Dunloy and this current crop of senior hurlers.
Since 2017, they have grown into the team we saw become kings of Ulster, dethroning the juggernaut that is Slaughtneil.
But it’s taken time, patience, planning and foresight from the Dunloy hierarchy.
A realisation that they were almost being left behind in Antrim with neighbours Loughgiel and Cushendall maintaining a stranglehold on the Volunteer Cup, the club set out with a vision to take the village and club a step further.
The building of the Academy in the Pearse Park grounds was the first and probably easiest step.
What would follow was up to the coaches and volunteers to take on the hard yards and develop the talent coming through.
They had the tools at their disposal and reaped the rewards, ultimately winning four Antrim minor hurling championships in a row.
Again, it was another step in the right direction for Dunloy - but as anyone will tell you, success at underage doesn’t always equate to success at senior level.
This is where Gregory O’Kane has been instrumental.
He held together the senior set-up within the Cuchullain's that was capable of producing the goods but perhaps missing the x-factor.
To keep that current crop of players focussed and primed for the next influx of young talent was probably O’Kane’s finest hour.
For every Keelan Molloy, you need a Conor McKinley.
For every Conal Cunning, you need a Kevin Molloy.
Seasoned warriors who have been around the circuit within Antrim and beyond and who live and breathe the club.
The Kevin McKeagues, the Phelim Duffins, along with the Gabriel McTaggarts and Chrissy Brogans in the squad have all played and still play a massive role in the development of the younger players.
The more senior players have helped bring the best out of raw, youthful talent and instil a winning mentality that had been missing from Pearse Park.
Bonds were developed and the age gap between the players mattered little - another hat-tip to O’Kane and his backroom teams, the mix of youth and senior players helping take the Cuchullain's to the next level with no apparent glass ceiling.
Driving each other and ultimately the club onto success. A dream combination for a group of players to be so self-driven and capable of maintaining a professional mentality and all with one goal: to take Dunloy to the top of the hurling tree.
In the 2017 league campaign, any game-time for those younger players was fleeting. O’Kane gave them minutes now and again but he had an eye on the championship where he unleashed them with staggering effect against St John’s, Ballycastle, in the semi-final, before they defeated Cushendall in the decider.
Since then, with the exception of 2018, Dunloy have dominated the Antrim championship and have timed their seasons to perfection in the quest for the Volunteer Cup.
But there has always been a lingering thought that while this Dunloy team, for all the accolades and superlatives showered upon them, to be comparable to the great Dunloy teams of the past they would need to go a step further.
Their growth since has been apparent but the benchmark was more difficult to reach.
In Antrim, it was that bit easier to check on how you measure up with the rest. Playing league matches and a championship round robin allowed O’Kane and his team to see just where they were in relation to the rest of the county.
Slaughtneil was different.
They had Dunloy’s number in 2017, ’19 and ’21 with little sign that the Cuchullain's were gaining any ground on the Derrymen.
So much had been expected of the Dunloy 'GOAT' – Paul 'Shorty' Shiels in years gone by that to take on a side with the might of Slaughtneil without him in the starting 15 was unthinkable.
But the Cuchullain's showed more evidence of their progress as they met fire with fire without Shiels and came out the other side unscathed earlier this month.
As unassuming as he is, ‘Shorty’ is the spiritual leader of this Dunloy squad, a player with an aura of hurling greatness and legend-like status within the village - a genius with the ash and a player who is making every day count when he wears a Dunloy shirt.
“Slaughtneil lived in our heads for the last five years,” 'Shorty' said when he and Ryan Elliott lifted the Four Seasons Cup in Armagh.
They had finally reached the standard and benchmark set by Slaughtneil and surpassed it. Making light of any talk that a glass ceiling had been reached by this squad and now have the chance of reaching hurling immortality.
Five-in-a-row Galway champions St Thomas's stand in their way of reaching an All-Ireland final at Croke Park on Sunday.
Regardless of what happens, the the pursuit of excellence will continue at Pearse Park.