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Duo can end title famine for Castle

By John Campbell

Published 25/09/2015

High hopes: Ballycastle’s Ciaran Clarke lines up for McQuillans in their first Antrim final since 2001
High hopes: Ballycastle’s Ciaran Clarke lines up for McQuillans in their first Antrim final since 2001

Two players who forfeited the opportunity to pursue promising careers with Coleraine FC stand to win Antrim Senior Hurling Championship medals this weekend.

Ciaran Clarke and Shane Jennings will line out with Ballycastle McQuillans against Cushendall Ruari Og at Dunloy on Sunday (3pm) knowing they can play a part in ending what has been a lengthy title famine for the seaside club.

Yet such is their ability in the soccer code that they could still be parading their wares with Oran Kearney's side in the Irish League.

Clarke has had a particularly hectic season on the hurling front having played for Antrim at senior level as well as fulfilling an important role in McQuillans progress into the Antrim decider.

Yet he still managed to spend some time in the US during the summer along with his Ballycastle and Antrim colleague Stephen McAfee.

In the Antrim semi-final, Ballycastle beat Dunloy by 2-19 to 2-15 with Clarke and Jennings making significant contributions to the scoreboard. It was a goal from Jennings that steadied the ship at a crucial stage of the match, while Clarke chipped in with half-a-dozen points.

And while manager Ronan Donnelly, parachuted into the role after Paul McKillen stepped down, hails the input of his team as a whole, he is understandably grateful that Clarke and Jennings decided to throw in their lot with his side.

"Obviously it's great to have Shane and Ciaran on board, they are quality players and it was their own decision to come back to us," said Donnelly.

"I can tell you it was certainly very emotional at half-time in our dressing-room in the semi-final. We knew we were up against it but we put in a magnificent second-half display. When you haven't won a championship title for 29 years and yet know you are so close to an appearance in the final, it is a real pressure situation."

McQuillans last appeared in the Antrim final in 2001 and since then they have lived in the shadow of teams like Loughgiel, Dunloy and, of course, Sunday's opponents Cushendall who are the reigning champions.

"You can't underestimate what it means mentally to have got past Dunloy in the semi-final. It was a huge relief, especially the way we went about it," added Donnelly.

"It's a huge lift for the club and the town but we'll not be going into the final and treating it like a day out. We have prepared as best we can and have a game plan in place."

Meanwhile, Kilcoo can edge closer to what would be their fifth Down senior football championship title in six years should they beat Mayobridge in tonight's semi-final at Pairc Esler, Newry.

Manager Paul McIver, in his first season in charge having succeeded Jim McCorry after he was appointed Down boss, believes that this will be the team's biggest test since he took command.

But, while talking up his team's prospects, he acknowledges that Mayobridge's track record in the Down flagship competition automatically garners respect.

"I think that we have a few boys who would walk onto most senior county teams," he said.

"For the moment, we are only in a semi-final and it's a case of one step at a time for us. We are not getting carried away with things. We will be giving Mayobridge the respect they deserve as their track record speaks for itself."

While Kilcoo have been the dominant force in Down since 2009, Mayobridge were the kings of the castle from 1999 until 2008 when they won eight titles.

Former player Michael Walsh, now a busy physiotherapist who also played for Down, is the current Mayobridge manager, while Benny Coulter remains the heartbeat of the side at midfield with Conor Garvey, Conleth O'Hare, Eoghan Woods, Adrian Barry and Kevin O'Rourke other key players.

In the second semi-final on Sunday night, Castlewellan will meet surprise packet Ballyholland who have been thriving under the capable baton of Steven Poacher.

Belfast Telegraph

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