Hurling & Camogie

Brendan Crossan: Dunloy players desperately need to re-charge to rediscover their love of hurling again

Brendan Crossan

Brendan Crossan

Brendan is a sports reporter at The Irish News. He has worked at the media outlet since January 1999 and specialises in GAA, soccer and boxing. He has been the Republic of Ireland soccer correspondent since 2001 and has covered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals and the 2012 European Championships

Dunloy duo Ryan Elliott and Keelan Molloy are stepping away from Antrim Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Dunloy duo Ryan Elliott and Keelan Molloy are stepping away from Antrim Picture: Seamus Loughran. Dunloy duo Ryan Elliott and Keelan Molloy are stepping away from Antrim Picture: Seamus Loughran.

YOU just knew something was happening long before the final whistle sounded in the county semi-final between Dunloy and Loughgiel Shamrocks at the beginning of October.

You could see from a distance out the Dunloy players were running on sand. Sometimes when you press on the accelerator, nothing happens.

No matter how many tactical and personnel changes Gregory O’Kane made on that sunny day in Ballycastle, he knew Dunloy’s stab at five-in-a-row was not going to happen.

Loughgiel, on the other hand, were like a pack of ravenous dogs that deserved the rewards that came their way that afternoon.

“Hurling is still an energy game and it’s still a hunger game,” O’Kane said afterwards. “You can have it in your wrists and legs and all the rest, but it’s still about hunger.”

From their unexpected county championship win in 2017, this group of hurlers have been on a journey of a lifetime.

They were just too young to defend the title the following year – but everyone in Antrim knew there were more championships in them.

Keelan Molloy, Conal Cunning, Seaan and Nigel Elliott, Paul Shiels, Kevin Molloy and Ryan Elliott - they were too good not to.

They went on to win the next four championships.

They gave everything of themselves – both emotionally and physically – to finally get over Slaughtneil on the Ulster stage last season and played a wonderful All-Ireland semi-final against St Thomas’s before Ballyhale Shamrocks nipped them in the decider at the beginning of this year.

All the while a sizeable chunk of them were going to the well with Antrim for the last four or five seasons.

What’s more, the split season absolutely flogs the successful club player who is good enough to represent their county.

As revealed in The Irish News earlier this week, Keelan Molloy, Seaan Elliott, Ryan Elliott and Eoin O’Neill have all informed Antrim manager Darren Gleeson they are taking a year out.

After 17 years of service, the totemic Neil McManus announced his retirement soon after Antrim secured their Leinster SHC status by beating Westmeath at the end of May.

Domhnall Nugent and Joe Maskey are two more players who have opted out of the 2024 campaign.

Darren Gleeson has much to ponder ahead of 2024 Picture Mark Marlow.
Darren Gleeson has much to ponder ahead of 2024 Picture Mark Marlow. Darren Gleeson has much to ponder ahead of 2024 Picture Mark Marlow.

When Gleeson called McManus ashore in the dying seconds of that tumultuous match in Mullingar and the pair embraced on the sideline, there seemed a neat symmetry to it, an end of an era.

People close to McManus knew Mullingar would be his last hurrah with Antrim and many also thought Gleeson might end his love affair with Antrim hurling at that time too.

After all, he’d raised the bar throughout his time as manager – Antrim won two Joe McDonagh Cups under his watch, they became regulars in Division One and he’d secured their hard-earned Leinster status in Mullingar.

More than all those successful outcomes were the many memorable afternoons that unfolded at Corrigan Park. Cork, Kilkenny, Dublin, Wexford, Clare - games and performances that will will live long in the collective memory of Antrim supporters.

There wasn't a group of players that worked harder than the Antrim hurlers over the last four years - just to gain inches on the big guns.

To do that at the top level takes unfathomable effort.

The Tipp man decided to give it another lash with Antrim in 2024. But had he known how many holes would be blown in, not only his squad, but his starting line-up, he may have thought twice about staying on for a fifth season.

Tremendous work is being done at underage level in Antrim – but it is still early in their development to help the senior team next year.

Maybe it’s the way it will always be in Antrim. There'll be sparks of revolution from time to time - but sustaining the flame for longer than a current cycle of players is always a huge ask.

It’s entirely understandable a number of these young men have decided to step away for a year as there are other parts of their lives they need to tend to.

In a recent interview with Arron Graffin, formerly of Antrim and Cushendall, he uttered a few words to the wise.

“We’re all invested in our clubs and our communities and it’s so important to us,” he said.

“But there are other parts to our lives too: family, career, relationships. Too many people identify themselves as, for example, ‘Arron Graffin – the Cushendall and Antrim hurler’ whenever you’re just a person who happens to play hurling for Cushendall.”

To rediscover their love for the game, the Dunloy players probably need to look beyond the hurling field for a while now.

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IT’S county convention season again and some significant changes are afoot at the top of Antrim GAA on Monday night.

County chairman Ciaran McCavana and treasurer Donal Murphy will leave their posts having served five years and incoming are Seamus McMullan (Glenravel) and Angela Callan (St Comgall's).

It’s a bit like what players desire when they start out playing and wanting to leave the jersey in a better place.

On an administrative and financial level, the same can be said of both McCavana and Murphy as they hand the baton on to the next volunteers.

There was a time when Antrim GAA commandeered the back pages of The Irish News for all the wrong reasons – but those negative headlines were replaced by prudent decisions both on and off the field.

Collie Donnelly and Terry Reilly led the county out of the doldrums for several years before handing the weighty responsibility over to McCavana and Murphy.

With the significant help of Saffron Business Forum, a rejuvenated Club Aontroma and Casement Park Social Club, Antrim GAA is unrecognisable to what it once was.

Corrigan Park received a £1.2m facelift and Dunsilly now looks like a proper Centre of Excellence with new floodlights, dugouts, a high-performance gym and signage. The county is debt-free.

A huge part of their legacy will also be how they led from the front and assisted their communities during the worst excesses of the COVID pandemic.

In modern times, personal careers are often put on hold and family time becomes squeezed when you assume office in the GAA.

Portglenone clubman Murphy has three children under four and another one on the way, while McCavana is looking forward to spending more time coaching his daughters’ teams at St Enda’s GAC, Glengormley.

Donal Murphy (left) and Ciaran McCavana at the opening of Antrim GAA's new high-performance gym at Dunsilly. Both men will finish their five-year stints with the Antrim County Board on Monday night
Donal Murphy (left) and Ciaran McCavana at the opening of Antrim GAA's new high-performance gym at Dunsilly. Both men will finish their five-year stints with the Antrim County Board on Monday night Donal Murphy (left) and Ciaran McCavana at the opening of Antrim GAA's new high-performance gym at Dunsilly. Both men will finish their five-year stints with the Antrim County Board on Monday night