By Michael McMullan
MAINTAINING the hunger won’t be an issue for Sleacht Néill ahead of Sunday’s Ulster final showdown with Loughgiel insists goalkeeper Jolene Bradley.
The rescheduled 2020 clash will be a seventh meeting since Loughgiel’s win in the 2015 decider.
The sides were deadlocked 12 months later before the Emmet’s won an emotionally-charged replay and have been at the peak of the mountain since.
“They are a great outfit, you can’t take that away from them,” Bradley said of Sunday’s opponents.
Sleacht Néill return to the provincial series as the reigning champions, with the hurt still lingering from their 2019 All-Ireland heartbreak as Galway giants Sarsfield’s ended their four-in-row hopes.
“You always learn from your defeats,” Bradley points out. “The hunger is always there and as we say in our motto Ní neart go cur le chéile (there is no strength without unity) – the unity we have in our team is unbelievable.”
While the club’s hurlers and footballers – including her younger brother Gerald – lost out on the 2020 Ulster campaign due to Covid restrictions, a u-turn saw the Camogie Association reinstate the Ulster and All-Ireland campaigns.
“At the start it was hard to get our heads around, as we were focussed on the 2021 season as it is always a challenge getting out of Derry,” Jolene admits.
September’s county final win over Ballinascreen was her 15th season between the posts after making her debut at the age of 15 in the 2008 championship, following in the footsteps of her sister Sarah, a previous Sleacht Néill goalkeeper.
“It is becoming a more important role and more things are being focussed on,” said Jolene of the changing face of goalkeeping.
“The puck outs are a massive focus now in camogie whereas it wasn’t a big focus years ago. It is becoming like football; it’s about retaining possession from the word go.”
Like many of the inter-county goalkeepers she has watched, there is now the option of going short on puck outs.
“I would’ve been going long and never have went short, but when you have the likes of Aoife Ní Chaiside and Louise Dougan, which those long strikes, why wouldn’t you utilise them.”
The nine weeks since their last championship outing has been a mixed bag. It began with some welcome downtime and rest. A few friendly and in-house games were thew into the equation.
“There was a lot of time to get the heads right and, at the start, a bit of time for a bit of freedom for a few of the girls.
“For the last four or five weeks, it has been hell for leather and we’re looking forward to this game on Sunday, we have waited long enough for it.”
Another ingredient has been the younger dimension to the team which has freshened up the panel.
“This has been a big difference for all of us,” Jolene explains. “Bridín McAllister, Céat McEldowney, Eilís McGrath and Orla McNeill… they were all underage when we started this run of winning, but they have stepped up so much.
“They have really got into their roles; they are senior players and they know what is needed outside of training as well as inside.
“It is great that they have come through and we are setting an example with the underage girls coming into the panel.”
This weekend, Sleacht Néill put their title on the line and Bradley knows exactly what to expect.
“It always is a battle against Loughgiel, we will be coming out hungry and hopefully with another Ulster title.”