Dunloy, Ballymena

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A Classic Anticipated in Newry

Updated: Nov 8, 2019

Action from the sides' 2017 meeting. Pic by John McIlwaine.

Ulster SHC Final

Cúchullain’s Dunloy (Aontroim) v Roibeard Eméid Sleacht Néill (Doire)

Páirc Elser


Aidan Ferguson – Erne Gaels (Fear Manach)

Dunloy bridged an eight-year gap in 2017. Some of the Sleacht Néill contingent were rumoured to have appeared among the scenes of unbridled joy in the village to add their congratulations, having just retained their own county title.

A fortnight later they bullied them out of Owenbeg in front of over 6,000 spectators, Dunloy’s young starlets physically overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the Emmet’s challenge.

Lessons have been learned amid claims that 2017 success came too early for the Cúchullain’s. This should be the game we were all expecting two years ago.

Paths to the Final

Dunloy were dethroned by a wily Loughgiel side in the 2018 Antrim championship, but managed to clinch the league title in convincing fashion. They retained it this year and went on to repeat their 2017 defeat of Cushendall in the county final.

Two late goals from substitute Seaan Elliott finally got the Cúchullain’s side over the line after some wasteful attacking play allowed Ruairí Óg to stay in the game into the final stages.

In Armagh, Dunloy never gave Ballycran a hint that there was a game on. They dominated from start to finish, with Nigel Elliott’s running terrorising the St Joseph’s defence. A fortuitous Conal Cunning goal in the first half gave them a cushion to work with, but they refused to sit on it.

Encouragingly, their frightening full-forward line took the physical punishment issued by a hardened Ballycran full-back line and shrugged it off to finish with 1-11 between them. Anton McGrath added the gloss with a late daisy-cutter.

Such was their dominance that McGrath celebrated in front of a near-empty stand. The Slaughtneil hurlers had left the building ten minutes earlier, having seen enough.

They kicked off their Derry campaign with a merciless 1-32 to 1-12 win over Lavey, even allowing Cormac O’Doherty to kick his heels on the bench for the final ten minutes having already racked up 0-10.

Kevin Lynch’s made them earn their place in the Ulster series by pushing them hard in the Derry final, but Brendan Rodgers’ late goal broke the resolve and the Emmet’s added a further 0-05 to seal their 7th consecutive title.

In Armagh they swatted aside Middletown without ever really reaching second gear. O’Doherty’s fine form continued and with Seán Ó Cáiside anchoring the side they swaggered their way into the final two.

Match Ups

Shane McGuigan v Nigel Elliott

Elliott requires little introduction at this stage. His explosive pace and direct running style induce panic in opposition defences and the talented half-forward has the finishing to match. He fired over 0-04 against Ballycran and the sliotar in his hand should set alarm bells ringing.

In direct opposition will be Shane McGuigan. Noted for his scoring prowess with the big ball, McGuigan is a tough wing-back with the camán in hand. Although his scoring instinct is hard to repress, he will need all his athleticism and ability to curtail Elliott on Sunday.

Karl McKaigue v Keelan Molloy

Molloy came in for close attention from Ballycran’s Michael Hughes and with good reason. The flying corner forward continues to get better and like much of the Dunloy team has added physicality to the pace and accuracy he has always possessed.

Karl McKaigue is a hugely experienced competitor and is well-used to tracking forwards of Molloy’s ilk in both codes. He has the athleticism and know-how to prove a tricky opponent for the Dunloy man to shake.

Chrissy McKaigue v Paul Shiels

This is a battle that is sure to thrill the Páirc Esler crowd on Sunday. Two players with differing styles will attempt to outwit each other in the middle of the park.

McKaigue is a direct hurler and like to hurt opposition teams as soon as the sliotar finds its way into his hand. Dunloy’s half back line is a strong unit but the experienced Sleacht Néill midfielder has the potential to cause uncertainty with his strength and direct running.

‘Shorty’ has the tenacity, the score-taking ability and sheer class to both springboard the Dunloy attack and protect their defence. The prospect of seeing these two going head-to-head should have you scrambling for tickets.

Jerome McGuigan v Conor McKinley

A battle of the titans is in store on the edge of the Dunloy square as these two face off. McGuigan has been in fine form for Emmet’s and Sleacht Néill look to find him early in the game to test an opposition full-back’s resilience.

McKinley is unlikely to be found wanting. He combines the enthusiasm for a physical battle with the ability to launch the counter attack for his side and his battle with McGuigan will be an intriguing one.

Sean Cassidy v Conal Cunning

Like his full-forward line comrades, Cunning has gone from strength to strength over the last two years and has been superb in this year’s championship. He has a ruthless streak that sees him sniff out goal chances and take them with aplomb and will pose a major threat to the stringent Sleacht Néill defence.

Cassidy is a tough full back and an excellent organiser who not only will contest balls with Cunning, but marshal the defence to his advantage as an effective Plan B. Another key battle ground awaits in the Sleacht Néill box.

Light the Powder Keg

All of Ulster hurling has been waiting for this one. The two best teams in Ulster will take to Páirc Esler in front of an expectant crowd. The huge crowd they attracted to Owenbeg in 2017 is an indicator of the level of anticipation surrounding this fixture.

Dunloy have classy hurlers throughout their fifteen and well into their substitute bench. The production line is relentless and the feeling that their added physicality has levelled things in the one area in which they were perceived to be lacking.

Gregory O’Kane and his management team absorbed the lessons of 2018 and implemented the improvements, but Michael McShane’s side have a winning mentality forged from seven consecutive county titles and years of domination in both codes.

Cormac O’Doherty will fire almost every free between the posts and that kind of robotic accuracy heaps pressure on the opposition. A few wides here and there and they suddenly find themselves behind due to the frees conceded.

Dunloy have their own reliable free-taker in Conal Cunning and even if we don’t get the open thriller we are all hoping for, the game will remain in the balance. Sleacht Néill’s swagger looks to be back, but so does Dunloy’s.

Both are well aware of the prize that awaits them. Dunloy are searching for their first Ulster championship in a decade. The Emmet’s want to end a three-year hiatus.

Malachy Clerkin raised eyebrows when he called into question the quality and occasion of the club game during the week. If he’s in Newry on Sunday he’ll see both.

Admiring glances. Furtive praise. Mind games. These two have been eyeing each other up all season like heavyweight boxers.

On Sunday the posturing ends and the truth will out.

Verdict: Dunloy