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Loughgiel manager determined to repeat last year's All-Ireland win

By Declan Bogue

All-Ireland hurling club champions in 2012, Loughgiel Shamrocks continue on the long road of defending their Antrim and Ulster Championships when they meet neighbours St Brigid's Cloughmills this evening in Dunloy (6.45pm).

In the previous round the Shamrocks annihilated St Gall's, the leaders in Division Two, a league in which St Brigid's hover around mid-table.

St Brigid's are a relatively-young club, based in Dunloy parish, and as Loughgiel manager PJ O'Mullan explains, that area would have previously provided his club and Dunloy with hurlers.

"We have a few lads on the team at the minute, like Neilly McGarry and Paul Gillen, and their parents would have been Cloughmills people. My own father is from Cloughmills," he said.

St Brigid's won the Antrim Intermediate Championship last year and reached the provincial decider in Newry, only to be beaten by Fermanagh club Lisbellaw St Patrick's.

A couple of months later, as if to illustrate the gulf between the two, a last-gasp Liam Watson goal earned Loughgiel a stay of execution against Galway's St Thomas'.

In the replay the Shamrocks could not contain the Galway men, who went on to claim the All-Ireland senior crown.

O'Mullan confesses that the defeat in Clones is "still hurting a wee bit."

He explains: "We really feel we left it behind us last year.

"We should have won but could have lost it the first day. The second day we created the chances we had been craving and just didn't take them.

"If one or two of them had gone in, we believe that if we had got to an All-Ireland final we would have won it."

He adds: "It was a massive achievement winning the All-Ireland. We have our mind set now on retaining the Antrim Championship because if you win that, everything sort of snowballs from there."

At the minute, Loughgiel are standing at the bottom of the mountain, having negotiated some of the foothills of the first round.

Cast a glance around the playing staff, and Loughgiel have definitely freshened up the scene.

Tiarnan Coyle, in Antrim Under-21 action last weekend in that landmark win over Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final, has seen plenty of action as a corner-back.

The league has also been the ideal environment for the likes of Donal McKinley, Tony McCluskey, Mel Connolly and Seamus Dobbin to gain more experience at this level.

"We have a really good, strong 22 there, and we carry a panel of 28," says O'Mullan.

"The competition has been really, really good. The young lads are pushing on the lads on the team and some of the players are getting older now, but they just don't want to give up their places yet. It's good."

It's more than good. With 14 league games played, Loughgiel have only dropped one point. Their nearest challengers are Dunloy who, despite playing three games more, lie four points adrift of the Shamrocks.

At the minute, it would seem like a question of appetite, and how they can sustain it.

But O'Mullan says that concern has been something he has paid attention to.

"We have been working on that. We are now four years on the go, it's hard to sustain the appetite but I think the reason why Antrim Under-21s won last weekend was the amount of work the clubs are putting in.

"Local clubs particularly are getting up to where we are. The club scene in Antrim is very big with clubs like Ballycastle, Dunloy, Cushendall, St John's – they are all putting in massive work and have some nice players.

"When those clubs are putting in that type of work, we have to up our own effort and do something different. Appetite and hunger, we believe, is there."

O'Mullan adds: "The players have seen a lot of bad days before and the younger players that have had a bit of success, they want more of it."

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