By Michael McMullan
IT was only ever going to be hurling that grabbed Paul Shiels’ full attention. One of the sporty types, ‘Shorty’ was a capable Gaelic footballer and captained St Louis, Ballymena to a Northern Ireland Schools’ Cup soccer title.
Hurling would pull hardest. The last time Dunloy were in an All-Ireland final, their 2004 defeat to Newtownshandrum, Shiels was finishing up this final u-16 season.
He remembers the buzz, watching the players he grew up wanting to emulate. His earliest memory was the 1995 and 1996 seasons, when Dunloy were first running out on on All-Ireland final day. Those days in Dublin planted the seed.
“The spine of that team played in ’03 and ’04. It was a good team, they were around a long time and there was plenty of success,” said Shiels.
There was another factor. Growing up, Alastair Elliott lived next door. The Elliott and Shiels families were intertwined.
Chris Elliott, a selector with Dunloy’s first Antrim Championship winning team in 1990, and his wife Sally looked after Shiels as a child.
“I was in that house all day, every day,” he recalls. “Alistair, Jarlath and Malachy would be there, Bronagh and Oonagh won championships with Dunloy in camogie.”
“The three boys, we’d have been pucking the ball up and down the road, or around the garden. That’s where I got it (the love of hurling). Chris ended up taking our underage teams and we were successful there.
“It was what we did and it was the environment I grew up in, it pushed me towards the hurling more than anything.”
Shiels played “a few” league games in his breakthrough season in 2005 before making championship appearances from the bench. With their four-in-a-row coming to an end, success was sparse.
“You were coming into really well established players,” he said of sharing a dressing room with O’Kane, Elliotts, Richmonds and the Molloys.
Rather than daunting, those players rolled out the standard that needed to be followed.
“They had done the ground work, they had set out the stall for how you become a senior hurler, how you acted and looked after yourself. You just fall into line and continue that on.”
While the example was well-accepted, success began to dry with the Volunteer Cup jumping between Loughgiel and Cushendall.
But success comes in cycles and four successive minor championships, between 2015 and 2018, started the wheels turning again.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” Shiels admits. There was a spine of a senior team in situ, but the minors bolstered the squad and now form the basis of a group heading back to Croke Park on Sunday.
The talent freshened up the camp and made an impact straight away on the way to the club’s 2017 senior win, ending their eight-year hiatus.
“We won a senior championship straight out of minor with those boys,” Shiels outlines. “That was priceless in their development. It is hard to win senior championships, so to get them early, you can’t put a price on that.”
Despite failing to topple Sleacht Néill in Ulster and not retaining their title in 2018, the graduation from underage over the next four seasons built the panel even stronger.
It took them until last December to toss the monkey off the back of not being able to emerge from Sleacht Néill’s shadows in Ulster. There was still a belief they’d knock down the door if they beat it hard enough.
“We had our troubles getting out of Ulster, but you can’t really talk too much about that because the competition was massive,” Shiels said.
The shackles were off when they ran out at Croke Park to take on St Thomas. The sides were level at 0-6 each by half time. It could’ve been double that with both teams passing up chances. Shiels felt his side were still in control and the Dunloy chances were “better” opportunities.
“In the second half, we began to spray the ball around and find the space, but at the same time keep it tight at the back,” he said.
Looking back, there are two emotions. Satisfaction at getting the job done and the realism of the level of improvement needed for the next challenge. For Shiels, that’s the attraction. Winning and getting back to training to polish their game.
While many players and camps try to dilute the excitement an All-Ireland final brings, Shiels feels it’s not a factor.
Like the lasting effect it had on him as a youngster, it helps sell the future of the club to those coming behind.
“I wouldn’t try and play it down. I wouldn’t try and ignore it,” he said. “In small communities like Dunloy, that’s what we live for. Even the young ones, this is the time for them to enjoy and talk about.”
The more you try to blot it out, the excitement remains. Since the semi-final and this week in particular is about balance – savouring the atmosphere while staying away from any energy sappers.
Dunloy have a very relaxed dressing room admits Shiels. They don’t get too down in defeat or overly caught up in the frenzy of success.
When the weekend comes, the squad and management will head south with the fans left to crank up the party side and excitement a game of this magnitude radiates.
“We have good underage teams there at the minute and this should only help to drive them on over the next five, six or seven years to try and do this again,” he said about the club’s future. “It is not just something we want to do and forget about it. We want to try and maintain this and success is not easy to maintain.”
Winning is important for the here and now and what it will do for the future. Shiels believes the club have both the facilities and bodies to keep churning out talented players.
Shiels’ back injury troubled him at the tail end of the Antrim campaign and curtailed his involvement, but it has cleared up and he’s raring to go.
“It is a massive challenge,” he said at the very mention of the word Ballyhale. The names drop off the tongue. The TJ Reids, Adrian Mullens and Colin Fennellys, all with a plethora of All-Ireland medals at club and county level.
“At the end of the day, if you are going to win it you are going to have to beat the best somewhere along the line,” Shiels sums up,
“We’ll prepare and how we can impose our game on them. It is going to be helter skelter, that’s why we play and it’s where we want to be. It is the acid test, but we are looking forward to it.”