By Michael McMullan
MICHAEL McShane insists that Sleacht Néill’s mindset has been the driving force of keeping them at the top of Derry hurling for over a decade.
Of their eleven successive titles, McShane has been at the helm for nine with previous winning manager Padraig Dougan added to the management team this season.
They’ve managed four Ulster titles in an unprecedented spell of silverware but, despite going close in All-Ireland semi-finals against Na Piarsaigh and Ballyhale, have never made the step to a Croke Park decider.
While not wanting to be “disrespectful” to any of their opponents in Derry after Sunday’s comfortable win over Kevin Lynch’s, McShane admits his side are “we are a few steps” ahead of everybody in the county, at the moment, stressing the word ‘moment’ in his interview.
“The secret for us is to always try and keep those few steps ahead,” McShane said. “Every year we are trying to refresh it, improve it and come with something different that keeps us ahead. We have been able to do that.”
The Emmet’s started without six of the team that lined out in last year’s county final, giving an idea of their transition of players from year to year.
Five of their forwards – aside from Mark McGuigan – didn’t play last year with ace defender Karl McKaigue now featuring in attack.
The focus ahead Sunday’s final, McShane stressed, was in getting to the pitch of their game.
“We played in the county final here a few times when we haven’t performed well but we won. Today, I felt our performance was really top class,” he said.
McShane also hailed how Brendan Rogers, playing in his 27th game of 2023 for club or county, saved his biggest club performance for the final. Despite starting at midfield, Rogers pushed into a more familiar inside forward role to bag 3-2.
“Brendan has been teetering on the edge of exploding with a big game,” McShane said, referencing to his hurl being hung up during Derry’s season that took them to the All-Ireland semi-final.
“You can’t come back and pick that up and be the top-class level that he can be at.
“When he went inside today and we got the good ball into him, he looked so dangerous. He ended up with 3-2 from play, which is fabulous and will give him all the confidence in the world going forward.”
Sleacht Néill’s stick work was on the money and they didn’t relent until the final whistle with a level of conditioning their opponents couldn’t match.
That said, McShane – who has psychologist Dr Noel Brick in the backroom team – pointed to the mental side of their game.
“There is a fabulous mindset in the players and in the management,” said McShane.
“To do eleven in a row is one thing but to have the hunger and the desire to come back every year to do that is another thing.
“The mindset is so strong in these lads. We talked about it a few years ago and I said to them that it won’t last forever so you have got to make the most of it.
“You have got to win as much as you can when you are riding on the crest of a wave
“That’s what they are doing, putting as much energy into trying to win as much as they can and they come back every year.
“We are physically stronger that most teams, fitness wise we going strong at the end and Kevin Lynch’s started to fade a bit, mentally more than anything.
“The mentality of our boys is to keep setting targets, to keep driving on and to keep winning.”
McShane stressed the need to “trust” the young players, referring to Ruairí Ó Mianáin, Eamonn, Shea and Jack Cassidy coming seamlessly into the side.
He also made reference to James McCloskey’s first county final appearance after having the persistence to hang around despite a torrid time with knee injuries at underage.
“They had to come into this game and step up to become real Sleacht Néill senior players and I thought they did that and it’s the most pleasing aspect,” he concluded.