Gregory O’Kane insists the current Dunloy team are walking their own path in history, he spoke with Michael McMullan…
YOU don’t need to be talking to Gregory O’Kane long to sense the love of hurling and his pride to see Dunloy pulling up a seat at the top table once again.
Now, in his eighth season as Dunloy senior manager, he leads them on club hurling’s biggest day this weekend.
And, as a player, he walked the walk. In the bowels of the Cusack Stand on Sunday, when he gives his final address, his words will hold the same clout.
He has played in every one of the club’s All-Ireland finals including the 1995 replay after they left the Tommy Moore Cup behind them in the drawn final at the end of their breakthrough year.
The very mention of Croke Park and O’Kane’s voice dances. Within minutes of winning the Ulster title, his appeal, when addressing the media, was a craving for a semi-final in headquarters.
He got his wish, but after a wasteful opening 30 minutes of hurling, they were neck and neck with St Thomas’ until Keelan Molloy’s dazzling goal provided the spark for a deserving win.
Watching a team you coach win at Croke Park resonates deep into a GAA passion. It’s where all the dreams knock the door of.
“Our delight was because it is still a relatively young side,” O’Kane said of that kid in a sweet shop excitement.
“For them to get there and get the exposure of playing in Croke Park and performing when you get there, I am delighted for players.”
Dunloy’s pace and legs were the perfect combination. Add in their stick work and the pieces begin to come together.
“There is no stadium like it, there are spaces in Croke Park you don’t get anywhere else,” he said.
“We found the spaces on the day and it probably suited our style of hurling, they were delighted to get the big plays and, when they came, to execute the chances.”
They were helped with a core of their players having experience of playing there in finals with Antrim. Nothing is new this weekend. The pitch, the dressing room and that star struck moment. All are out of the system.
“When we got there, it wasn’t as new or as daunting as we thought or people would think and it was about being as good as we can be,” O’Kane said of the semi-final.
Sunday is a first meeting of the clubs. There wasn’t even an All-Ireland Féile crossing of paths or a random challenge game against a strange face to test oneself.
“The nearest we came was watching Sleacht Néill against them (in 2019), they (Sleacht Néill) were brilliant on the day and were unlucky not to get over the line,” O’Kane begins of their opponents who have the added incentive of righting the wrong of Harry Ruddle’s last-gasp winning goal for Ballygunner in last year’s final.
“Everybody knows Ballyhale and everybody knows Kilkenny hurling. They are a phenomenal club for what they have achieved. They have continuously produced All-Ireland winners and All-Stars.”
Dunloy beat Glenmore in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final, a game that goes down in club folklore of their finest ever performance.
In a feature with Gaelic Life earlier this month, former star Nigel Elliot – father of Nigel on the current
team – lamented how they always seemed to hurl their best in the semi-final.
“This team is their own team,” O’Kane said when asked was the target this weekend to put that chatter to bed.
“Whatever comes before or comes after is immaterial. This team, it’s about themselves and what they do is be their own men. All we are hoping to be is the best we can be in the final and see where it takes us.”
There is always the freedom of having the monkey off their back after securing a first Ulster title since 2009.
Speaking after the final, Ryan Elliott referenced the jabs occasionally coming their way if not being able to translate the Antrim dominance into Ulster. O’Kane’s take – they just weren’t ready.
“We were coming up against Sleacht Néill and the team was still developing,” he said, both now and after beating the Derry giants.
“They (Dunloy players) probably weren’t satisfied themselves that they weren’t producing an Ulster (title), so it was probably coming from the players, a real drive to get the Ulster title.
“At this stage, you always felt if you got past Sleacht Néill, then there was more in this team and that’s the beauty of it, we proved that to ourselves as well.”
Sunday will come and Sunday will go, but Gregory O’Kane will have the same calm and emotionally neutral demeanour, ice cold on the pitch and the same off it. If the Tommy Moore Cup can make it north, it would represent the final ingredient in Dunloy’s cycle. It would give O’Kane and everyone in the village another reason to love the game.