By Niall Gartland
WHY stop now? Dunloy joint-captain Ryan Elliott admitted that Sleacht Néill had “lived in the heads” of the Antrim champions’ heads for five years following their provincial triumph against the Emmet’s, and now they’ve banished that particular ghost, the question is whether they can achieve something very special indeed at national level.
They do have pedigree – they’ve reached the All-Ireland final five times – including a replay – in their history, albeit that famed climb up the steps of the Hogan Stand never transpired – but they’re coming up against St Thomas’s of Galway, a team that has form against Antrim sides down the years.
The Galway side ended Loughgiel’s reign as All-Ireland champions in 2013, and they also edged out Cushendall at the All-Ireland semi-final stage in 2019.
Spearheaded by Conor Cooney (who has amassed 4-79 in championship hurling this season) and Eanna Burke, they’re a formidable side who have been installed as 14 favourites to qualify for the final.
But Dunloy have reason to believe they can become the first side from Antrim (and indeed Ulster) to reach the All-Ireland showdown since Cushendall came out second best against Na Piarsaigh in 2016.
Much has been made of the talented younger players who have come through the ranks in recent years. Potential alone doesn’t add up to a can of beans, but overcoming a side with the steel of Sleacht Néill shows that they have the requisite mettle to compete at this level (indeed, they managed to overcome the Derry kingpins even though Paul Shields, who had been injured, only played played ten minutes at the end of the contest).
Shields hasn’t been the only absentee through injury, but their strength-in-depth has been a major part of Dunloy’s success this year and Gregory O’Kane made a number of calls in the Ulster final that paid dividends as they finally cracked the Sleacht Néill code.
Conor Kinsella came in and helped nullify the considerable attacking threat of Cormac O’Doherty, a task easier said than done. Eoin McFerran, who wasn’t selected for last year’s semi-final defeat to Sleacht Néill, was drafted in for the final and did a great job, while young forward Anton McGrath gave a sensational account of himself, particularly in the first-half.
While the team selection proved inspired, there was still a sense that O’Kane’s hand was forced by injuries. Paul Shields, whose reputation as one of the game’s exquisite talents precedes himself, had only a week’s training under his belt before the Ulster final due to a lingering groin injury which has given him no end of trouble all year.
Perhaps more likely to be handed a starting berth this Sunday is another experienced player, Conor ‘Woody’ McKinley, who is back training after missing the entirety of the championship with a shoulder injury. Subs Nicky McKeague and Declan Smith also helped calm things down when they came on late in the day against Sleacht Néill, so they aren’t short of options if things begin to go awry on Sunday.
While St Thomas have some ace attacking threats, none more so than the aforementioned Cooney, Dunloy’s defensive display was rock solid against Sleacht Néill in the Ulster final (Sleacht Néill landed 16 points and no goals across the hour, a low return by their standards). And it’s not as if St Thomas can afford to rest on their laurels at the back either – Conal Cunning was hugely influential at full-forward a fortnight ago.
There was some positive omens as well for Dunloy, for what that’s worth. They have a stellar record against Connacht sides down the years, coming up trumps in All-Ireland semi-final clashes Athenry, Portumna and Sarsfields. You’d imagine that St Thomas’s will be ferociously hungry, however: since winning their one and only All-Ireland title in 2013, they have have won five Connacht titles (spanning the last six years) and have yet to add another to their collection. The closest they came was in 201819, when they were beaten out the gate by Kilkenny heavy-hitters Ballyhale Shamrocks on All-Ireland final day. So it’s fair to say they’ve a point to prove, but they may also bear the mental scars of a string of defeats in the last four in particular.
There’s a sense that whatever happens on Sunday, this is merely the beginning of an uber-talented Dunloy side. The majority of their side are in their early twenties, and it would be a surprise if they don’t feature in further big days in the coming years.
The game itself is taking place in Croke Park, the scene of Antrim’s recent Joe McDonagh Cup successes (2020 and this year). Dunloy players Ryan Elliott, Keelan Molloy and Conal Cunning starred in a thrilling victory over Kerry back in June, so that experience won’t do their chances any harm, but the overall feeling is that St Thomas are further down the road at this juncture and are justifiable favourites to advance. Time will tell, but it should be a valuable learning experience for Dunloy whatever happens.