AIB Ulster Club SHC final: Robert Emmett’s, Slaughtneil (Derry) v Ruairi Og, Cushendall (Antrim) (Sunday, Pairc Esler, 2pm)
MICHAEL McShane wore the weary expression of a man who had pucked every ball when he emerged from the Slaughtneil changing room after last year’s Ulster final defeat to Dunloy.
Leaning against the wall in the Athletic Grounds tunnel, the sound of the Cuchullain’s celebrations reverberating across the corridor, he paid tribute to their conquerors’ hunger and determination to end a losing streak against the Emmett’s.
But, before he was done came a warning, sullen eyes suddenly alive as the parting shot was delivered.
“I’ll say now, absolutely guarantee you,” said McShane, “this Slaughtneil team will be back in another Ulster final in the not too distant future - and it’ll be us coming with the hurt next time.”
Twelve months on, here they are, the Antrim champions in the opposite corner once more; this time Cushendall rather than Dunloy after their dual exploits eventually took a heavy toll.
The last time these clubs clashed in Ulster eight years ago, Slaughtneil were still wet behind the ears, the coming force threatening to upset the status quo, just waiting to smash through Ulster’s glass ceiling.
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They would go on to do just that. Since losing to Cushendall after extra-time in that decider, they have lifted the Four Seasons Cup in four of the six years the competition has been staged since.
This time, though, the Emmett’s have been waiting in the long grass. Sunday marks 77 days since the hurlers’ last competitive outing, a facile 20 point county final win over Kevin Lynch’s.
Challenge matches have taken place in the meantime, and a watching brief assumed as Cushendall still had to navigate the knockout stages of the Antrim championship before eventually coming out the right side of a rollercoaster Ulster semi-final clash with Portaferry.
With the Emmett’s footballers bowing out to Glen on October 24, McShane has had almost six weeks to focus solely on Sunday’s game. Only then will we find out how well that time has been spent.
Slaughtneil have been without the influential Brian Cassidy (travelling) all year and while Conor McAllister is understood to be a major doubt, Chrissy McKaigue could return from an ankle injury while Shane McGuigan – who hasn’t played for the hurlers at all in this campaign – has trained in recent weeks and appears likely to return.
Cushendall, on the other side of the coin, come into the final battle-hardened. Having lost club stalwart John McKillop earlier this year, the Ruairi Ogs have played like men in a mission, eventually overcoming a dogged Loughgiel to lift the Volunteer Cup for the first time since 2018.
And, despite going in as huge favourites, Brian Delargy’s side got out of jail against Portaferry a fortnight ago, having trailed by four heading into added time before another Neil McManus masterclass sent the game into extra-time. From there, Cushendall didn’t look back.
However, it was cause for concern just how much of the dirty ball wound up in Portaferry paws that day, with the Down champions’ defence successfully keeping Cushendall at bay until the dying seconds.
They cannot afford to allow Slaughtneil to dominate those exchanges or there will only be one winner, with the softness of all three Portaferry goals – profiting from long balls into the square - setting alarm bells ringing too. Perhaps that will prove to be a timely wake-up call.
Last year’s defeat took a while to come to terms with for an Emmett’s side who had raised the bar in terms of Ulster club hurling. There will be very little in it on Sunday, but holding on to that hurt might just the Derry kingpins the edge.