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£35,000 cost of an Ulster club's quest to play a single game


Big ambitions: Michael McShane of Slaughtneil
Big ambitions: Michael McShane of Slaughtneil
Kilcoo coach Conleith Gilligan
St Enda’s boss Terence McNaughton
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

On February 9, 2019, Ruairí Óg Cushendall lost their All-Ireland club senior hurling semi-final to Galway club St Thomas' in Parnell Park, Dublin.

It had been one day shy of 14 weeks since their Ulster final win over Ballycran. In that time, the north Antrim side had extensively toured Leinster and Munster for coaching days and challenge matches against suitable opposition. Being so far away from home though necessitated hotel stays and serious expenditure.

"I know it cost my club £35,000 to play one match last year," reveals Antrim hurling legend Terence McNaughton.

"That was hiring floodlit pitches, going down to play challenge matches against suitable teams. It was a massive expense to put on a rural club."

It's little surprise then, that managing Belfast's St Enda's since the start of 2019 and facing into an All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final against Kilkenny's Tullaroan - club of Tommy and Padraig Walsh - he believes the condensed calendar to be a welcome development.

St Enda's have prepared diligently with challenge matches against the county teams of Donegal, Armagh and Louth plus Queen's University.

In the meantime, they met up for sessions on December 26 and January 1.

"On Boxing Day we were training through sheets of rain, and it was one of the best sessions of the year. I just thought in the middle of it, 'here, this is good'," he says.

"The reason we wanted Boxing Day was the same reason we wanted New Year's Day. Being cute about it, training those days mean you are curtailing young fellas going out and celebrating.

"Like if you are training at 9am on Boxing Day the chances are you are not out on the beer on Christmas night. Same as New Year's Eve.

"I am dealing with players, some of them are 18, 19, 20, with girlfriends who want to go out and celebrate the New Year. It's hard on families but that's why I think it should be tightened even more, play it off in the one calendar year."

It was the same story for Slaughtneil hurling manager Michael McShane, who is due to take his place on the Newry sideline tomorrow against possibly the most iconic hurling figure since Christy Ring, Ballyhale Shamrocks manager Henry Shefflin, in the senior club semi-final.

"We trained on the Sunday, 22nd, and then took a wee break and trained on St Stephen's Day in the morning time and had our session finished for boys to go home for lunch or whatever they wanted to do," states McShane.

"We had to do that. When you are talking about Christmas Day, you are talking about 10 days to an All-Ireland semi-final. You can't not be training. But the boys were happy with the wee break to get their presents sorted or whatever.

"It was good to get up early on Boxing Day, out into the fresh air and a training session, everybody in good spirits."

In his managerial role, McShane has had to manage long lay-offs with the Ulster hurling club championship usually rattled off long before other provinces.

In the 2016 season, an enormous 18 weeks elapsed from the Ulster final win over Loughgiel to their semi-final loss to Cuala.

The season after, it was 16 weeks before Na Piarsaigh beat them.

This time it has been a mere eight weeks. But old problems go away, new ones rise up to take their place.

When McShane went chasing challenge games against top-tier counties, there were issues.

"You want to be playing inter-county teams to get the higher standard because all club teams are finished up apart from those still in the competition," McShane says.

"But you want to play county teams and when I was talking to them in December, a lot of them were doing gym work, going through heavy programmes and they weren't looking to play hurling games.

"There were other competitions, Walsh Cups and Kehoe Cups and stuff like that, that were being played. So it was difficult to get the right challenge games."

If it were up to him, there might be one more week in it before the semi is played. They all agree that this system is better now.

Conleith Gilligan - coach of Kilcoo who face Ballyboden St Enda's in the senior club football semi-final today in Kingspan Breffni Park - was a part of the Ballinderry side that won an Ulster club title in 2001 in late November against Mayobridge. They then had to face London champions Tír Chonaill Gaels in mid-December before a lay-off to February 24 and a win over Rathnew before beating Nemo Rangers on St Patrick's Day.

"Personally, I think it is much better. And it will be even better when it goes into a calendar year for me," says Gilligan.

"Because I know when we went on a run with Ballinderry it was very difficult. You played in an Ulster final and at that time we had to go to London which was a nightmare, logistically and everything else. You came back home, had your Christmas break and then all of a sudden you had to try and start up again."

Since they landed that savoured Ulster title, Kilcoo kept up their routine of training Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. They just didn't train on Christmas Day.

"Players have never been as disciplined as they are today and I know people would give modern football a bad rap, but in terms of preparations, they have never been as well prepared," he adds.

Some clubs have been embracing Christmas, but in a much different manner.

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