By Niall Gartland
IT’S been a hectic but enjoyable year for Loughgiel joint-manager Mark ‘Duck’ McFadden, whose side stand on the brink of All-Ireland glory with their date with defending champions Sarsfields at Croke Park this weekend.
McFadden was an integral part of the Antrim Seconds set-up that claimed All-Ireland Junior honours earlier in the season (it’s probably no coincidence that Loughgiel have a particularly healthy representation on the Saffron’s senior team), while on the family front his wife Emma, who has only recently returned to training, had her second child.
In a way, that’s been the story of the Shamrocks’ season. Emma wasn’t the only experienced Loughgiel camog unavailable for selection through pregnancy, but talented younger players have stepped up the plate and here they are – 60 minutes away from a first ever All-Ireland camogie title in their history.
It’s already been something of a breakthrough season – they overcame their Sleacht Néill hoodoo in the Ulster final before claiming their first ever All-Ireland semi-final victory at their fifth attempt, so confidence must be sky-high in the camp ahead of their date with destiny this weekend.
In previous years, McFadden says, there was too much pressure heaped on marquee forwards like Róisín McCormack and Caitrín Dobbin, but now everyone puts their shoulder to the wheel, something very much evident in their gritty win over Drom and Inch in their semi-final clash last weekend.
“It’s all about team play – we’re working more as a collective unit as opposed to getting the ball, hoofing it up the pitch and letting some of the classier forwards deal with it. This year we’ve always reverted back to the team ethos, that you have to show for the ball, instead of thinking you can just clear your lines and that’s your job done.
“In a sense Loughgiel prioritised in the past the individual players who can go and win matches practically by themselves, but there’s a limit to that kind of thinking and we always hark back to the team this year.”
It’s difficult not to point to the example set by Sleacht Néill, who won three All-Irelands in a row in recent years. Loughgiel came out second best to the Derry girls in six Ulster finals on the spin, but they achieved a hugely significant win over the Emmet’s in this year’s provincial decider. McFadden says they have immense respect for Sleacht Néill, and the hope is they can become the latest team from Ulster to land the All-Ireland title.
“I’ve nothing but respect for Sleacht Néill and the way they went about their business and got three All-Irelands. They set the tone for the rest of us and if we can replicate that, happy days.”
McFadden, who is in his first year the helm alongside Brendan Dillon, says that success at inter-county and school level in recent seasons has undoubtedly helped instil a winning mentality in the Loughgiel side. Antrim won last year’s All-Ireland Intermediate title, their seconds bagged the Junior crown this season with an entertaining win over Armagh, so most of their players are well-versed in playing at the GAA’s very own Theatre of Dreams, Croke Park.
“It was great for the girls to win the junior title and looking back we’d love to have given the two Loughgiel girls on that team a bit more game-play, but the girls who are playing are holding their own. Playing in Croke Park should be no bother to us really, I think there’s only two who haven’t played on it but everyone else has.
“It’s great to have this opportunity to grace the national stage, we’ve never been in an All-Ireland Camogie final before.
“I feel we’ve always had the players to get this far, but this has been the year they’ve actually stepped up, so fair play to them.
“Everyone dreams of playing in Croke Park and now we’ve got there, we have to try to finish the job. There’s a great buzz around the place, and it’s great for the local community as well.”
Whatever happens this weekend, Loughgiel camogie is in rude health. In theory it should be even stronger in years to come, with experienced players like Emma McFadden returning to the fold.
“This is my first year on the management set-up and I knew going into the job that Emma wouldn’t be available initially. She and Emma McMullan are back training now and they’re great to have around.
“We still had high ambitions even though quite a few girls weren’t around, we wanted to be competing in an Ulster final, and the team has worked really well. Everything’s snowballed from there really and we have a great opportunity to win an All-Ireland title.”