By Michael McMullan
AT just 22 years of age, Loughgiel captain Declan McCloskey typifies the age profile of a team aiming to land the club’s 21st senior title on Sunday.
The Shamrocks face a Cushendall team (Corrigan Park, 2.30pm) who handed them a 15-point defeat in the final game of the group stages.
Goalkeeper Chrissy O’Connell, Dan McCloskey and Tiernan Coyle represent the ‘thirties club’ in a team with an average age of just 26.
McCloskey admitted it was a “shock” when manager Hugh McCann appointed him as captain at such a young age.
Loughgiel are also in a sixth consecutive minor final and going for five-in-a-row.
McCloskey played on the first team to lose after a replay to Dunloy before captaining the winning crop of 2019.
“Hugh came in (as senior manager) and said we have a young team and you are the oldest of the group that is coming through,” he explains. “They were giving me a chance (of captain in 2022) and thankfully he stuck by me this year.
“It is a nice honour to have but there are 15 leaders on the team and the five subs every day of the week.”
Like all young lads growing up in Loughgiel, McCloskey feasted on watching the 2012 All-Ireland winning team who won four Antrim Championships in succession.
“I remember travelling down with my family and my eyes just lit up when I saw the red jersey in Croke Park,” he said of the 2012 final.
“It was something I had never seen before and I always remember wanting to get back there.
“You can’t get any bigger. I admired the boys who were on that team and I still do to this day.”
The inspiration began in 2010 when the club brought ‘Big Ears’ back for the first time since 1989.
Since then, the success has lifted the club in all facets across coaching and facilities. Past players are flat out coaching the stars of tomorrow. Players like McCloskey have been the harvest.
“Everybody in the club has bought right into it, from underage right up,” he said.
“We are reaping the rewards at the minute with the minor titles and hopefully on Sunday, if we can, we could add a senior title to it.”
They were “blown out of the water” in their last final, a 2-20 to 2-13 defeat to Dunloy in 2020.
Since then, it’s been semi-final and quarter-final hard luck stories. The drive is now to get over the finish line.
Standing in their way are Cushendall who dished out a hammering in the competition already with Neil McManus amassing a mesmerising 4-9.
On the Monday night, when the Loughgiel players assembled in the club gym for a debrief, the slate was wiped completely clean ahead of their quarter-final with St John’s.
“The game was gone,” McCloskey said. “We had strategies in place to play St John’s and it worked.
“It was something similar to Dunloy which helped because the teams play similar styles.
“After we got over Dunloy, we enjoyed the night and the slate was wiped clean the next day. It will be a different process to try and beat Cushendall.
“The match will be forgotten about if we don’t go on and win it.”
What would it mean it Sunday could yield a senior title? McCloskey pauses, chooses his words before speaking like a veteran
“It would drive everyone on in the parish,” he said. “We are looking forward to it. We can’t wait until it comes but we can’t get caught up in the occasion.
“It is another game; it’s the same game we have played since we were six years of age.
“It would be amazing; it would drive the club on. Everybody is talking about these teams coming forward but it doesn’t really show until you have a senior title.”