When Dunloy made their 1990 breakthrough in Antrim, Nigel Elliott was a key cog in their team and will have two sons in action in Croke Park on Sunday. He tells Michael McMullan about the club’s journey.
WHEN Dunloy run out on Croke Park on Sunday afternoon, it’s the second golden generation of hurlers to have evolved from the club.
They are the product of foresight and planning. The club’s state of the art indoor training area offered a dry solace to keep the touch, wrists and eye in tune across all seasons of their underage journey..
Like their constant flow of championship success, hurling in Dunloy wasn’t always a success story, but those in green and gold have a lot to be thankful for.
A county final defeat at the hands of Rossa in 1976 was a rare peak on the landscape. Dunloy were always in the senior grade, but nowhere near the cutting edge.
“We never won the championship,” Nigel Elliott began. “They thought for a while there was a curse on us… there was that rumour.”
It was time for six men to step forward and change the direction of the club.
“A group of men came along in the eighties and decided that they were going to focus on the youth and our juvenile teams to see if we could get built up to get a senior championship,” Nigel Elliott explained of the start of their rise.
His father Seamus, Willie Richmond, Jimmy McMullan, Chris Elliott, the late Aidan McCamphill and the late Eugene Trainor set the ball rolling.
The project was simple and centred around more coaching from u-12. Féile titles followed, growing into “four or five” minor titles and later u-21 level until players were ready to step into the real world of senior hurling.
When their 1990 senior success came, it almost came earlier than expected with a 1989 semi-final humbling at the hands of Loughgiel a sobering reality check.
“After that game, we thought we were as far away as ever from winning a championship,” Elliott said.
The talent was there, it just needed time to establish its roots and two league games the following season swayed them towards a winning path.
Going toe to toe and beating a seasoned Ballycran team was a sign they could hold their own.
“Anytime you went to play any of the Down teams, it was always a tough battle and that day we really stood up to them and there was maybe even a row,” Elliott remembers.
The visit of Cushendall – with stars like James and ‘Sambo’ McNaughton – was another indicator of progress.
“We really stood up to them and we started to realise we weren’t so far away,” Elliott continued.
By the time the championship arrived, their belief grew and after victory over Rossa in the decider, the Volunteer Cup was on its way to Dunloy for the first time.
“The homecoming was something else…I never experienced anything like it,” remembers Elliott.
The village was thronged with folk from everywhere and it was the first sight of a Creagh Concrete lorry trucking the champions on their final leg home with the cup.
“I remember coming up the Station Road and seeing the whole crowd at the corner…it was powerful seeing growing men crying,” Elliot said of the raw emotion that only a first ever success can bring,
“It will never be matched again, ever, and they still talk about it to this day. The pub never shut for two days after it.
“The boys on the team now, they grew up seeing the lorry coming into Dunloy when we won the championships, so it gave them a taste for it.”
Elliot was one of many players in their early twenties on Dunloy’s breakthrough team, with an “elder” trio of Tony McGrath, Seamus Boyle and Dominic McMullan two or three years ahead of them.
Of the 16 times Dunloy have been crowned Antrim champions only Sleacht Néill (three times), suspension (1998, after a row with Lavey the previous year) and Covid (2020) have stood in their way in Ulster.
With Dunloy well in contention, Kilkenny’s Glenmore ended their maiden All-Ireland venture of 1991, but it took three years to regain the Antrim Championship with Cushendall winning three on the bounce.
“I would say in ’91 we were caught on the hop but Cushendall were coming strong,” Elliott said of a rivalry that saw both teams dominate that era.
When Dunloy returned in 1994, they were there to stay. Eight Antrim titles in a decade was a mark of consistency and they made their first breakthrough on the All-Ireland stage against an up and coming Athenry in Clones the following February.
The Galway champions were a point ahead when super sub Jarlath Cunning – uncle of current star Conal – flicked a long ball to the back of the net to send Dunloy fans into raptures.
It was an Athenry side that would come back to win three All-Irelands, highlighting the magnitude of Dunloy’s achievement.
“They were a big physical side and there were big men like Joe Rabbit,” Elliott remembers and explains Cunning’s legacy.
“If anybody in Dunloy scores an overhead flick like that in Dunloy, it’s called a ‘JC’…it has been renamed,” he said.
“He is sort of a folk hero around here because of it and we’d still talk about it in the bar. We keep him going, saying that he never touched it, but he tells us he did.”
The goal was enough to send Dunloy to an All-Ireland final with another team coming to the fore, Birr, who would end up level with Portumna on four titles.
The 1995 All-Ireland final – on the same day a late Mick Pender penalty save denied Bellaghy the football title – was Dunloy’s first time on the biggest stage but the one that haunts them most.
It was the day of the gale force winds blowing through Croke Park, with advertising hoardings going everywhere. In the football final, any frees from the ground or kick-outs required another player to hold the ball on the turf.
“It probably shouldn’t have been played,” Elliott said of a game they dominated.
Despite playing against the elements, Dunloy were ahead at half time with everyone in the ground pondering the realistic chance of them pushing on to beat Birr.
“I think we thought that ourselves, but fair pay to Birr, they were a superb team,” said Elliott of the 0-9 all draw that needed a late Dunloy equaliser from Tony McGrath. “That Birr one was the one that got away and it took a long time to get over it.”
Birr led the replay 2-7 to 0-0 at half time, blitzing a “shell-shocked” Dunloy team on their way to a comfortable victory.
“We will never get a chance like that again,” Elliott suggests, while also feeling the current team have the tools to win the ultimate prize.
Of all the games in the club’s run, they still look back on their 1996 win over Glenmore at Croke Park, a day when everyone clicked to deliver a performance that stands the test of time.
“I’d say it was one of the best performances by a Dunloy team ever and they’d still talk about it,” he said.
“Every man played out of his skin that day and it was a great performance. They had Christy Heffernan and Willie O’Connor, boys like that. They were seasoned Kilkenny players…it was one of the best performances from a club team in Croke Park.”
Dunloy lost the final to Sixmilebridge after a creditable performance. There were further final defeats to Birr (2003) and Newtownshandrum (2004) before the side petered away, with 2009 the last time they came out of Antrim until their rebirth on the scene five years ago.
Elliott suggests that Dunloy have produced their best hurling on All-Ireland semi-final day, with their other wins coming against Mount Sion of Waterford.
“Some of our semi-final performances were out of this world,” he said. “I remember going to play Tipperary senior team in a challenge game and beat them down in Tipperary, but when it came to (All-Ireland) finals, we didn’t do it.”
There is also the regret of missing out on the 1998 campaign after their row with Lavey the previous season.
“I would say it was probably as good as we had. If we had got going onto the All-Ireland that year, we could’ve given it a shout,” he added.
Like many success stories, the Dunloy team of the nineties eventually filtered off. In a similar fashion to the six men in the late eighties, it was time for another injection of youth development after “taking their eye off the ball” when their senior team was in full swing.
It was driven by a host of former players, with their new indoor centre coming along to give them a base no other club could offer.
“We went through a phase when we weren’t winning championships, I suppose we got stale,” Elliott said, while also hailing everyone involved in getting their new arena up and running.
“It was set up for the indoor training, then the gym followed for the strength and conditioning. At the start it was going to be a small project, but they decided to go the whole hog and do the thing right when we were at it.”
“I think it has had a massive impact. The boys growing up at u-12 are not going out to train with a wet, heavy ball on a pitch that is not playable.
“We were able to take them inside. There is some difference going into a dry hall with the stick work.
“The number of times they were striking the ball, compared to outside, was a lot higher. The ball was coming so fast they were getting their eye in and it improved the stick work. Most of the current team would’ve come up through the academy.”
It gave a home to tournaments over the winter and with every touch, players were improving to help their teams flourish again.
When St Louis won the Mageean Cup in 2015, there was a heavy Dunloy input and those eight players are on the squad that head for Dublin on Sunday.
Alongside his brother Shane and Sean ‘Patch’ Mullan, Nigel was involved with the club’s underage teams. It doesn’t beat playing, but it’s the next best thing.
He admits to not being a great spectator, finding it hard to watch the senior team with two sons involved and opts to stay away from the main crowd at games.
“You like to see them doing well all the time,” Elliott said. “There are days they play well and there are day they won’t, but that’s sport and as long as they go out and work hard.”
There is a deep satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their labour with a core of their latest influx of youth going on to win four successive Antrim titles.
“It was great to see them coming up through and turning into good senior hurlers,” he adds.
There are the links to teams of the past, with Elliott also acknowledging the pressure on his former teammate Gregory O’Kane’s shoulders as manager to deliver Ulster silverware.
It took ‘Dick’ until the third of his eight seasons in situ to win the Antrim Championship. While he has never presided over a losing county final, barring no completion in 2020, he has lived in Sleacht Néill’s shadow in Ulster. The feeling around the village was that a county title wouldn’t suffice this season.
“It’s nice to win the Antrim title but you need Ulster for that team to really be on a par with the team of the nineties,” Elliott admits, pointing to how their recent win over Sleacht Néill changed the mood.
“The night they were back training after winning Ulster, it was like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders, there was a lot of pressure on them to get over the line.
“From chatting to Seaan and Nigel, they can go to Croke Park and enjoy it; there is no pressure on them.”
Elliott is shocked at the odds of 9/2 against the Ulster champions in a two-horse race. It backs up their underdogs’ tag, but Dunloy minds always veer back to 2003 in Mullingar when the bookies were cleaned after Dunloy chinned hot favourites Mount Sion.
Dunloy will never give up the hope of winning an All-Ireland. The team Nigel Elliott played on was good enough, one of the best to have gone without taking the Tommy Moore Cup into the village on the back of a Creagh Concrete lorry.
Elliott believes the current team have what it takes, but Sunday will tell the full story. But, regardless of the result, the love of hurling will continue and their indoor centre will be buzzing with youngsters looking to get their slice of the club’s success story. Clubs are all about generations and the cycle will always continue.