By Niall McCoy
“WE were close today but we think we’re close everyday. Someday we’ll get them.”
The above is a quote from Cushendall manager Brian Delargy after last year’s county final loss to Dunloy. They may have lost by six points, but it was never a six-point game with Chrissy McMahon tagging on a goal for the champions as the Ruairí Óg chased some late magic.
One would think that the Cushendall visualisation all season has been about getting the better of Dunloy in this year’s final, but the five-in-a-row chasing Cuchullains were shocked by Loughgiel in the semi-final.
So it’s Cushendall-Loughgiel for the first time since 2016 and for what it’s worth, Delargy said such final visualisations hadn’t been present within the camp anyway.
“We probably never thought too much about a decider,” he said. “To be honest, and I know it’s clichéd, we went through the group stage taking it one game at a time.
“We try and improve every day we go out. We try and set targets that they have to hit through stats and different things, and we’re just striving every game to better ourselves.
“We didn’t plan for anyone in the final, we just wanted to make sure we got there ourselves.”
Their march to this stage and the shot at a first Volunteer Cup since 2018 has been impressive, to put it mildly.
The group stage saw three wins from three, including a 4-22 to 0-19 win over Sunday’s opponents with the evergreen Neil McManus raising all of those green flags.
This weekend at Corrigan Park will be different. It’s a different beast now awaiting them. Having eased past Ballycastle in their own semi-final, Delargy and some of his management team headed to Ballycastle to watch Loughgiel dump out last year’s All-Ireland finalists – and in emphatic fashion too.
“They were very impressive. They put Dunloy under serious pressure from the very first whistle and they executed their plan to perfection. If you were their management team you’d be very happy with how things went.
“It’s easy to say you’re going to go out and do all these things but to actually go out and do it against the four-in-a-row county champions, well hats off to them.”
The Antrim hurling final is one of those special days in Ulster’s sporting calendar and so often the late John McKillop has played a big part in that.
The Cushendall fanatic helped with the management, walked in parades and lifted cups with the players.
Between 1981 and 2014, Cushendall won 14 Antrim Championships and John was in every one of them. Unfortunately, he died in August and there’s no doubting that it will be an emotional occasion for the club.
“Whenever you get a wee moment to yourself you realise that John will not be there with us on county final day but we know that he will be with us in spirit,” Delargy added.
“It’s the same for the whole village, it’ll not just be the senior team that is missing him on Sunday.
“It’ll not have to be mentioned or anything like that, we’ll know he is there with us.”