It’s only been two years since the Ulster Hurling Championship began a three-year hiatus and deprived its fanatical hurling fraternity with their showpiece event.
Naomh Eoin’s Conor Johnston hit 3-05 of his side’s 5-22 as they obliterated Armagh in front of a paltry crowd in Owenbeg as the competition whimpered into its imposed purgatorial state.
Since then, the Ulster Club Hurling Final has come to represent the pinnacle of the province’s hurling calendar. Sunday’s decider between Dunloy and Slaughtneil, the best the nine counties has to offer, was an indicator of the insatiable interest in the sliotar’s flight.
The uniqueness of the Páirc Esler venue created a pilgrimage effect as supporters of the three competing teams, Loughgiel, Slaughtneil and Dunloy, were joined by hurling followers from across Ulster.
Supporters’ nervous anticipation merged with the relaxed laughter of neutrals as hordes of cars pulled into the service stations en route to the Mourne county. Merry spectators bundled into buses with hopes, dreams and no shortage of blue bags.
Carloads of families crammed into Newry and children with hurls and sliotars milled around Páirc Esler. At the referee’s whistle they poured onto the turf to dream of their turn. All around the watching crowd were club colours from every corner of the province.
County hurlers and club stars were dotted throughout the crowd. Our two-year-old daughter sat wide-eyed at the colour and sound of it all. The unmistakable match-day aroma of burgers drifted from the van next to the turnstiles and steam rose from mugs of tea cradled by shaking hands.
Doubt had been cast during the week in some quarters over a perceived lack of quality in the club championships. Four sets of players convincingly dispelled that notion on Sunday afternoon by the canal.
The sensational Slaughtneil camógs claimed their 4th consecutive Ulster title at the expense of a Loughgiel Shamrocks side who must be thoroughly sick of the colours maroon and white. The game kept the 5,000-strong attendance on the edge of their seats until the end, with the Derry champions triumphing and setting their sights once again on the All-Ireland title.
The Emmet’s hurlers then blew Dunloy away with their intensity, skill and hunger. Limiting the free-scoring Cúchullain’s to 0-04 from play was only one aspect of their dominance. Their match-ups were spot on defensively. They hit scores from everywhere, Gerald Bradley’s catch and monstrous finish the pick of the bunch.
Cormac O’Doherty fired home 1-04 and was metronomic in his attacking consistency. Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rodgers cut through the Dunloy defence with ease, the latter drawing an outstanding early save from Ryan Elliott. They had nine different scorers.
After their demolition of Lavey in the Derry Semi-Final, their traditional swagger looked to be returning and it has carried them all the way to regaining the Ulster title they relinquished against Ballycran last season.
While a jubilant Slaughtneil celebrated their success and a devastated Cúchullain’s trudged off the pitch, those with stake in neither side would have been left pining for the days when the Ulster Final meant a mid-summer showdown involving the best hurlers in the province.
Memories of a sun-kissed Casement Park rocking to the ebb and flow of thirty players emptying the tank still seem fresh, but the spirit of that nostalgic reminiscence was alive in Páirc Esler last Sunday.
The passion. The skill. The desire. The talent. All that was missing was the sun.
At provincial level, the Junior and Intermediate ranks are open, exciting competitions and are refreshing in their unpredictability. The Senior championship has filled the void created by its ailing intercounty equivalent and is attracting crowds well in excess of the county game’s latter years.
Club championships don’t just touch the competing teams. The majority of the crowd can identify with the emotions raging inside the involved players and supporters. They recognise the agony and the despair. That empathy is hard to replicate in the intercounty game.
The Emmet’s are on the All-Ireland trail again while Dunloy will look on, smouldering with resentment and grudging in respect. Gaels across Ulster will already be looking forward to a re-match.
In Ulster, there is little danger of overstating the importance of club championship. If anything, we need to ensure it isn’t understated.