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All-Ireland Club hurling final: Karl McKeegan has his sights fixed on a golden farewell

By Declan Bogue

When Ruairi Óg Cushendall veteran Karl McKeegan steps out onto the Croke Park turf for the All-Ireland Club hurling final on Thursday, it will make for the most dramatic farewell game possible.

The St Patrick's Day showdown with Limerick's Na Piarsaigh will represent a turning point in the life of the 37-year-old, who, along with his colleagues in Gallaher's cigarette factory, stands to lose his job in May.

As a result, he expects to join his girlfriend Bronagh in Edinburgh, where she works as a Chiropodist. The lay-offs in Gallaher's brings 17 years of unbroken service to an end for the former Antrim hurler, who spells out a pessimistic future for the region.

"Michelin are closing too," he said.

"There is going to be nothing here. And Bombardier as well… There is going to be nothing for us. That's why I am thinking of going over to Edinburgh."

One consolation for McKeegan is the beauty of the Scottish capital.

He said: "It is lovely, if I had to move away from here now, that would be the place. Don't get me wrong, if something good came up I would stay. Bronagh would probably think about moving home."

With such industry leaving the region, he voices his fears for the next generation of hurlers.

"If things don't change soon, so many are going to be leaving. We have good young players coming through now, but if things don't change soon, there are going to be no jobs for them," he added.

In the meantime, McKeegan stands to bookend his career in the most spectacular fashion.

Drafted onto the senior team while still a minor, his first season ended with an Antrim Championship when they beat McQuillan's Ballycastle in the 1996 final - interestingly, the same opponents as this year's thrilling final in Dunloy.

They had further title triumphs in 2005, 2006 and 2008 but then Loughgiel began their four in a row in 2010.

"When they won the third… I thought 'it's over now'," admitted McKeegan (pictured).

"They weren't an aging team and I knew they would be hard to stop. But I knew we had a lot of good ones coming through as well. You don't know how they are going to react once they get to senior level, but all my mates, the amount of times I have missed things…

"I have missed stag dos, things like that, and they would ask, 'why do you keep doing this, why do you keep going?'

"But at the same time, I always thought we could win another Championship and I always had a feeling we would get to an All-Ireland semi-final and win one.

"It's not as if we were ever getting tanked in All-Ireland semi-finals, it was always close."

In the last two seasons, McKeegan has had to come to terms with a reduced role, but has been introduced at half-time for the Ulster semi-final, the final and the All-Ireland last-four clash.

"It's the team that matters but I am still hoping and confident I can get a start in the final. I wouldn't be training as hard as I am if I didn't," he stated.

As for walking out onto Croke Park in Ruairi Óg maroon, he reflected wistfully: "It's something I have dreamed of. I have played in Croke Park a few times and I have always loved it and played well on it, always wanted to get there with your club - the people who look after you."

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