By Michael McMullan
LOUGHGIEL hurling manager Hugh McCann feels champions Dunloy are the team to beat and the rest of the sides have them “in their sights” in the race to lift the Volunteer Cup.
The Shamrocks lost their opening game against St John’s in Corrigan Park and are gearing up for Sunday evening’s clash with Cushendall at Dunsilly.
“We started very, very slow,” McCann said of their 0-25 to 1-20 defeat.
The ‘Johnnies’ were eight points clear midway through the first half, but Ryan McKee’s late free – that sailed all the way to the net – wasn’t enough to save Loughgiel.
“It took us a while to get into the game and when the boys realised they were in the game, we could’ve bridged the gap and were close to it, but it wasn’t enough.”
McCann – in his fourth year at the helm – heads up a management team that includes All-Ireland winners DD Quinn, Neil McGarry and Paul Gillan, with Paul Graham and Paul McKinley also on board.
“The league was okay…we were trying to get through it, trying out new players and trying out new things,” he added of their preparations.
July brought an extra five games after the league split, with Portaferry going on to take the title.
McCann was happy to let some of the younger players head off on holidays and felt the extra glut of games was “too much” at that stage of the season.
“A lot of the young boys haven’t been doing anything for the last few years, so they had to go and enjoy themselves,” McCann stated.
The management could have Antrim star James McNaughton on board this weekend, after his summer hurling in New York ended with Tipperary’s semi-final loss on Sunday.
Defeat in their first game leaves Loughgiel playing catch-up in the race to finish top of the group and book an automatic semi-final berth.
“Otherwise you are into a quarter-final,” McCann pointed out. “We are under a bit of pressure because St John’s beat us, but it is what it is, you have to try and win the two games.”
Aside from a serious knee injury to Nicholas McNaughton, Loughgiel have a few niggles and should be able to select from the rest of their squad.
Shea Casey and Donal McKinley are joined by the McCloskey brothers – Eddie, Dan, Ronan and Tony – from Loughgiel’s last championship winning team of 2016.
Goalkeeper Chrissy O’Connell – then an understudy to DD Quinn – is also still on board as they bid to break Dunloy’s cycle. The champions are going for a fifth title in six years.
“Dunloy, they have seven, eight or nine county players, so they are obviously the team to beat,” McCann insisted.
“Cushendall are very close, they have a sprinkling of county men too, the likes of Neil McManus.”
He points to the improvement of St John’s and last year’s runners up Rossa contributing to a competitive championship race.
“If you manage to beat either of them, you are not doing too bad,” he said.
“Dunloy have always been a wee cut above for the last years.
“Half of the (other) teams have them in their sights and they can beat any other team on their day. You need a wee bit of luck.
“We are just trying to prepare the best we can for the Cushendall game at this stage.”