THE physical test provided by Slaughtneil was perfect preparation for an All-Ireland semi-final showdown with O’Loughlin Gaels, according to Cushendall stalwart Eoghan Campbell.
Brian Hogan’s Kilkenny kingpins had to dig deep to overcome Dublin champions Na Fianna in the Leinster decider but, with Cats class all over the field, they will go into Sunday’s clash in Navan as favourites to book a final date with either Ballygunner or St Thomas’s.
The Ruairi Ogs, meanwhile, have steadily gathered momentum throughout the campaign – first ending a five-year wait for an Antrim title before producing their best performance of the year to see off Slaughtneil.
That Ulster final was viewed as a toss of a coin by most observers but, after a tight first half, Cushendall pushed for home to ensure the Four Seasons Cup headed to the Glens
And with a powerful O’Loughlin Gaels side boasting similar attributes to the Emmett’s, Campbell feels that victory in Newry will stand his side in good stead at Pairc Tailteann.
“Absolutely,” he said, “I was at the Loughgiel camogie game last night so I only watched the last 15 minutes [of the Leinster club SHC final]… if the last 15 minutes, if it was anything like the first 40, it was ferocious, some fantastic hurling.
“O’Loughlin Gaels have two Allstars in their full-back line [Huw Lawlor and Mikey Butler] and Paddy Deegan at centre-back. Big, strong men and Slaughtneil have big, strong men too.
“We rose to that today and we can mix it with anyone, it doesn’t matter. Slaughtneil have been there for four or five years, we knew they were never going to give up and they’d hurl to the end.
“We never panicked at any stage, we knew it was going to be from minute dot to minute 60 that we’d have to play and that’s what it was. Nobody panicked and we got over the line.
“We haven’t been here in a long time and to now get a chance at O’Loughlin Gaels in the semi-final is fantastic.”
And Campbell’s performance against Slaughtneil epitomised the resilience Brian Delargy’s side possesses when the going gets tough.
His pass was intercepted by Cormac O’Doherty 20 minutes in, that turnover eventually ending in Eamon Cassidy firing low past Conor McAllister as the Derry champions started to turn the screw.
But Campbell and Cushendall responded in magnificent fashion, calling on their experience to quickly regain control of proceedings.
“[Antrim manager] Darren [Gleeson] is standing there... when you let in a goal for Antrim, it is the next ball. There’s nothing you can do about that ball that’s been played, you have to go out and go for the next ball.
“There’s a few of us there with the county and we take that back to the club and drive it in. If you make a mistake, nobody has died, nothing has happened, you can go again.
“The goal went in and, within five, 10 minutes, we were back level. There’s no panic, ever. It has been instilled in us to always fight to the end.”
And the hugely competitive nature of their Ulster semi-final escape against Portaferry, when a last-gasp goal from Neil McManus was required to bring the game into extra-time, proved to be a blessing in disguise when the decider rolled around.
“Portaferry was, not an eye-opener, but it got us out of a bit of rust.
“You celebrate a county final a bit more and Portaferry put it up to us. To be honest, they put it up more than I thought they were going to.
“You can see it stood to us massively. Slaughtneil hadn’t played in 11 weeks. It is hard to get up to the pace of it. The Portaferry game definitely stood to us.”