SUNDAY, January 22 is D-Day for the Dunloy hurlers. An All-Ireland final match up against Kilkenny giants Ballyhale Shamrocks in Croke Park awaits the Antrim men.
It is the stuff of dreams for all hurlers to play in an All-Ireland Club final but something that only a very small number will ever get to experience. An exciting few weeks lay ahead for the whole village of Dunloy as they dare to dream.
Reaching an All-Ireland Club final is a serious achievement in itself. These things don’t happen by accident or through chance. A visit to Dunloy GAC will let you know all there is to know about the effort and work that brings a club to a stage where they can compete for an All-Ireland title.
The facilities in Dunloy are unbelievable. They have their own sports academy building with a large indoor playing hall with a 3G surface and a large gym built to professional specification. They have two full-sized playing pitches, an outdoor 3G pitch, ideally sized, for underage hurling and a separate building with function rooms, committee rooms etc. Huge amounts of fundraising, grant sourcing and backing from the local community went into having facilities as impressive as you will see anywhere in Ireland.
They do the work at underage level too. Dunloy teams travel to blitzes across Antrim, Ulster and further afield to get their young players games. When they leave venues, generally their teams are the talk of the day with other club coaches both envious and impressed by the standard of their teams.
This work started to bear fruit in 2017 with a first Antrim senior title in seven years. A famine period for a club who dominated the Antrim and Ulster Championship for most of the ‘90s and early noughties.
Getting over the line in this year’s Ulster final against Sleacht Néill was another stepping stone for this team. With the shackles off, Dunloy defeated Galway champions St Thomas in impressive fashion to reach the ultimate game in club hurling.
Gregory O’Kane, his management team and the players will be under no illusion as to the enormity of the task that lies ahead of them. Ballyhale Shamrocks are the most successful club in the history of hurling. Their team is littered with players who have played for Kilkenny at senior and underage level. TJ Reid has to be in any discussion around the greatest hurlers of all time and certainly has a strong case to be called the greatest club hurler ever.
With that said, Ballyhale are not invincible. Dunloy will take heart from the performance Sleacht Néill gave against Ballyhale in Newry in their last meeting with Ulster opposition. Sleacht Néill put Ballyhale to the pin of their collar in a great semi-final encounter.
Dunloy will feel that they have the forwards who can cause the Kilkenny kingpins trouble. Keelan Molloy, Conal ‘Coby’ Cunning, and Seaan Elliot have all pace to burn and can rack up scores. The key question will be around Dunloy’s ability to hold up defensively against the considerable fire power that Ballyhale possess. TJ Reid, Colin Fennelly, Eoin Cody and Adrian Mullan are all potential match winners on their own.
If Dunloy can stifle the Ballyhale attack they might be in with a chance of causing the upset.
Dunloy have been here before having lost three All-Ireland finals previously, twice to the great Birr team lead by Brian Whelahan and once to Sixmilebridge of Clare. The closest encounter being in the 1994/95 season when they took Birr to a replay.
Many of the players from that era now have sons and nephews playing on the current team. Many of them have coached the current crop as they developed through the ranks. They would love to see them go one step further. They will also be able to give the players an insight into what being involved at this stage of the competition entails.
The advice on offer is likely to seize the opportunity when it is now, here in front of them.
Dunloy will hope these days will come again but in sport there are no guarantees.
On a side note, this is my final article for Gaelic Life. I’d like to thank Ronan, Niall and the other people at the publication for giving me the opportunity to try something different and write a few pieces. I enjoyed the experience. Good luck to Dunloy on the 22nd, all hurling supporters from across Ulster and beyond will be hoping they can deliver the performance of their lives and bring back the Tommy Moore Cup.
The scenes in Dunloy will be something special if they do.