Champions’ depth a key to setting the benchmark

Ulster Club SHC final
Sleacht Néill v Dunloy
Sunday, Athletic Grounds, 1.30pm

By Michael McMullan

SLEACHT Néill put their Ulster title on the line on Sunday against a Dunloy team bidding for an eleventh provincial win and a first since 2009.

It’s the fifth meeting of the clubs in championship hurling with the Antrim side’s only victory coming in 2000 when current manager Gregory O’Kane hit four points in a commanding 4-11 to 0-9 win at Casement Park.

Brothers Barney and Patrick McEldowney played in the Emmet’s defence that day – the club’s first Ulster final – and are part of Michael McShane’s management team.

Cushendall are just one ahead of Dunloy on the Ulster roll of honour, but the Derry champions have been the standard bearers in the province, getting their hands on the Four Seasons Cup four times since beating Loughgiel in the 2016 decider.

When 6,142 fans thronged inside Owenbeg 12 months later, Sleacht Néill were seven-point winners over Dunloy who have since become the undisputed kings of Antrim.

McShane’s side were hurling with style in 2019 when they again saw off Dunloy before pushing the famed Ballyhale Shamrock’s to the pin of their collar on the All-Ireland stage.

And last year, when the great Ulster rivals crossed paths, it was the men in maroon who prevailed.

While an All-Ireland title has eluded both clubs, the Emmet’s have yet to strut their stuff on the Croke Park sward on club hurling’s biggest day. There will no doubt be a delegation from St Thomas’ in Armagh this weekend to assess their All-Ireland semi-final opponents.

That’s for another day. There is a small matter of Sunday and a game Ulster hurling fans have been waiting for.

It has to be a day Dunloy have been longing for. Translating Antrim titles into an All-Ireland challenge used to be seamless. The hunger inside those green jerseys has been immense.

From the moment they hit Ballycastle for 2-29 in August’s championship opener, they navigated whatever corner they purred towards.

A shoulder injury eight minutes into their league win over Loughgiel put an end to Conor McKinley’s season.

The point Eoin O’Neill landed in his substitute appearance was as important as the next in Antrim’s 5-22 to 4-24 Joe McDonagh Cup final win over Kerry, but he chose Robert Emmet’s of London for his summer hurling pathway.

Conor Kinsella lost his place in defence, but, on the flip side, there has been a return from Australia for Nigel Elliott who jetted off after the 2019 Ulster final defeat at the hands of Sleacht Néill.

Chrissy McMahon has been their impact man but the injury he aggravated on football duty against Dungloe leaves him in a moon boot. There are also doubts over Seaan Elliott and Paul Shiels as O’Kane ponders his options for Sunday.

Ryan McGarry and Kevin Molloy have been the central spine of a defence in front of goalkeeper Ryan Elliott.

They’ll have to be wary of Brian Cassidy after his mesmerising display to overrun Portaferry. His sideline cut capped off a fine performance. He looked fresh and hungry, perfectly positioned to poke home from the rebound after goalkeeper Pearse Smyth parried Cassidy’s brother Shea’s initial shot.

It’s what Dunloy do with Keelan Molloy that matters. Their attack is potent, but he is the heartbeat. If Shiels doesn’t line out, he may well be thrust into the middle third and told to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

Sleacht Néill have Shane McGuigan in fine form. He can play anywhere, virtually everywhere bar goalkeeper, and even popped up in attack in the latter stages of the Portaferry game as helped himself to 0-4.

The Emmet’s don’t play with an out and out sweeper like the days when Gerald Bradley owned the role. It’s now Cormac O’Doherty’s baby, with more flexibility and freedom. Sitting back in the pocket, he has the vision and wizardry to pick the killer pass.

The difference between Dunloy and Cushendall in the Antrim decider was the former’s greater attacking unit, with Conal Cunning’s accuracy from frees also locked in.

Defensively, Sleacht Néill have a decision to make. Sean ‘Tad’ Cassidy had a first start of the season before being replaced at the break against Portaferry by Seán Ó Caiside.

It’s luxury Michael McShane has echoed his satisfaction with – their strength in depth. Mark McGuigan and Gerald Bradley were always regulars. The panel has got stronger, and their impact from the bench has packed a punch.

Jerome McGuigan is another that will be knocking the selectors’ door this week after his impact and finish to the Portaferry net. It will have kept an edge around training since they left Corrigan Park two weeks ago.

For a rivalry that has been so intense and with skill on both sides, none of the four previous encounters have been ‘edge of the seat’ tight. With an average of nine points the difference, you’d have been safe enough to dander out early to beat the rush.

The standard Sleacht Néill set in the semi-final makes them bookies favourites. But that’s not the way it works. It’s about showing up and delivering, something the Derry champions have always done. The day they didn’t, Ballycran handed out a hammering.

It’s the full deck Sleacht Néill are playing with that make them a dangerous animal this weekend once again. And the use of their bench could help steer them towards title number five.

VERDICT: Sleacht Néill

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