By Michael McMullan
SLEACHT NÉILL are here to stay, but skipper Cormac O’Doherty stresses that their exploits against Dunloy will count for nothing unless they can land a fourth Ulster title this weekend.
Sunday’s ‘massive performance’ was their third win over the Antrim giants in five seasons.
It was a first game in seven weeks, coming after they lost their grip on the Derry football title.
“We have been building nicely towards it, but we knew if we didn’t perform today, that the season was over,” said O’Doherty, who still felt there were areas to improve on.
While he knew Sunday’s performance something they had in their arsenal, there was still ‘relief’ they churned it out when it mattered.
Aided by the wind, Sleacht Néill raced into a six-point lead, a margin Dunloy chopped in half by the interval. Early in the second-half, the Emmet’s were only ahead by the bare minimum, but still managed to keep their noses in front.
“One thing we’ll never do is panic,” said O’Doherty. “They had a good first half, but in the second half we blew them away. Our movement and our hurling were first class.”
O’Doherty damaged a shoulder joint in the dying embers of their county final win over Kevin Lynch’s and despite manager Michael McShane hinting his captain was facing a race against time, Cormac was never going to miss their Ulster campaign.
“This (Dunloy clash) was always going to be our big game in hurling,” he stressed. “The last three or four weeks, this was the big one and nothing was going to stop me pulling on the jersey today.”
When asked of the performance of Brendan Rogers, Cormac puffed out his cheeks before stating his fellow marksman’s ‘unbelievable’ level of preparation.
The work is done. The fitness is there. And the skills. Rogers ticks them all.
“He just goes out and expresses himself. You saw the second half, he just tore them apart with is movement and running,” O’Doherty added.
“People don’t give him enough credit for his hurling ability. I am just glad to have him on our team.”
Another important link was Cormac’s older brother Oisin, who tipped a Deaglan Smith shot over the bar and made a reflex save from point-blank range to tip a dangerous delivery from Dunloy ‘keeper Ryan Elliott that bounced in the Sleacht Néill penalty area.
”I will not give him too much credit,” Cormac jokes, before saying how Oisin has pushed Sleacht Néill to ‘another level’.
On top of distribution and saving shots, there is the organization he brings. The skipper also credits Michael McShane, who brought in former Kilmallock goalkeeper Tom Hennessy in as goalkeeping coach. Every box is ticked.
“His save at the finish is just a testament that him and Francis (McEldowney – sub ‘keeper) and the ‘keepers have done,” Cormac states.
“He might have made that save last year…he may not have. It was a super save and once that was saved, you could see that was the final nail in the coffin.”
Standing outside the Sleacht Néill dressing room, Cormac O’Doherty has joy etched into his face. Something that comes arm in arm with a satisfying performance.
But he is still a realist. There is no trophy on show.
Sunday is a first clash with Ballycran since the Sleacht Néill were on the wrong end of a 10-point hammering in Corrigan Park three years ago.
This week isn’t about revenge. Emotion doesn’t win silverware. Sunday is about an Ulster final.
”You have to win the game or today’s performance means nothing. As great as today was, we didn’t win anything today,” Cormac stresses.
“We must go into this final with a clear head,” he said. “We have a job to do, it’s to win the game and bring the Ulster hurling title back to the club for the fourth time in five years.”
Sunday’s win proves one thing – Sleacht Néill’s resilience.
There was soul-searching in the days after Glen ‘blew’ them ‘out of the water’ in the football final.
The dual code factor is twofold. Winning generates momentum. A defeat, on the other hand, can create doubt.
“When you lose, it is tough to recover from,” O’Doherty admits. “We have been around a lot of corners and we have lost a lot of big games. We know how to bounce back at this stage and today (beating Dunloy) is the evidence that we are not going away any time soon.”