JOHNNY McINTOSH: Learning lessons

THE dust has settled on Dunloy’s All-Ireland final defeat to Ballyhale Shamrocks, and you can be certain that Gregory O’Kane won’t countenance any talk of ‘moral victories’.

Dunloy’s game-plan worked to perfection for most of the contest but Gregory will be disappointed that they didn’t kick on and seize the initiative when the game was there for the taking.

One point down with eight minutes remaining and facing an ageing Ballyhale team, Dunloy were perfectly primed to end their hoodoo in All-Ireland finals.

It seemed to me that Ballyhale were genuinely rattled, but instead of pushing on, Dunloy seemed to become even more defensive and they were picked off by some excellent long-range scores from the likes of Eoin Cody.

When they look back on the season, I’d say their conservatism late on against Ballyhale will be their only regret.

Ballyhale had intended on blitzing Dunloy but my nephew Ryan Elliott made three or four great saves and the title was well and truly up for grabs.

But, and it’s easy to be an expert after the fact,they didn’t show the necessary adventure. ‘Coby’ Cunning had pulled right out of the forward line and Ronan Molloy was isolated up front with three or four Ballyhale defenders around him. Their midfielders Paul Shiels and Eoin McFerran played really well but they sat really deep, covering their own defenders. Perhaps Dunloy will regret that they didn’t instruct them to bomb forward in those closing stages and that will cause an element of regret.

On the whole though, it’s been a massive year for Dunloy. The players have to take a lot of credit for stymieing the best team in the history of club hurling, and I think that fact is indisputable – in their prime, Ballyhale would have had the better of most of the county teams in Ireland.

Perhaps more importantly, they finally got the Sleacht Néill hoodoo off their back, and they probably surprised themselves with their performance in the All-Ireland semi-final against St Thomas. I get the impression that five minutes into the second half, it’s as if they clocked that ‘this team is actually fairly ordinary’ and they won the game comfortably in the end-up.

They also had a bit more steel about them this year. Nigel Elliott came back from Australia and that was a big plus for them. For a period against Sleacht Néill, it looked like they were about to be overpowered, but they showed their mettle. I think they’ll be a bit disappointed, however, with the performance of their forwards on All-Ireland final day in particular. They have four or five of the best forwards in Antrim – I don’t mean to be critical, but if you asked the forwards themselves, with the exception of Ronan Molloy, I think they’d put their hands up and say they didn’t play to their potential. Possibly it was a combination of the ability of Ballyhale’s defenders and Dunloy’s style of play on the day.

But Dunloy have one thing on their side and that’s youth – most of their team are in the early-to-mid twenties and it’s commendable how they’ve been able to hold onto their young players coming through. It’s something I’ve always associated with the club – their ability to retain their 17- and 18-year-olds. It’s such a strong community and there’s a lot of good companies in the area, so employment isn’t a major issue. In other clubs (including my own), there’s a drain of players heading away to places like London, and it’s almost reminiscent of back in the eighties. It’s a major problem for the GAA but happily for Dunloy, they don’t seem to have that problem and that’s a testament to them.

While they’ll want to come back and make amends for their All-Ireland defeat, they can’t afford to take their eye off the ball. The next big team coming through in Antrim in my view is Loughgiel, who have won a number of the last minor championships and now they’re adding u-20 titles. Whether they can convert that into senior supremacy remains to be seen, but Dunloy have been warned.

Sleacht Néill will also come into the equation again next year. They’ll have been frustrated onlookers on All-Ireland final day. It was only a few years ago that they scored 3-19 against a Ballyhale team in their prime in Páirc Esler. It wouldn’t surprise me if their stalwarts are even more determined than ever next year, and with Glen assuming dominance on the football front, they may pour even more of their energies into hurling.

The only other team that I can see stopping Dunloy from winning an All-Ireland title is Ballygunner. Dunloy will need the stars to align – down the years they’ve lost to some seriously strong teams in All-Ireland final day like Birr and Portumna. You need to be there at the right time and for things to go your way, but if they keep the show on the road, they’ll not be far away.

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