Burke eyes All-Ireland success for Cushendall
Cushendall captain Paddy Burke will have a lot on his mind over the Christmas period - and it will all be very positive.
As the countdown is stepped up to the All-Ireland club championship semi-final against Galway side St Thomas's on Saturday February 9 at Parnell Park, Dublin, Burke understandably has much to reflect on as his side focuses on reaching the giddy heights of glory.
For the past few years Slaughtneil have carried Ulster's hopes into the closing stages of the All-Ireland series but without managing to get their hands on the coveted silverware.
Burke, whose team stormed to the Ulster title by overcoming Ballycran, observed Slaughtneil's journey into the higher echelons of hurling but without quite managing to capture the one trophy that continues to elude Ulster hands.
If Slaughtneil have endured frustration in failing to get across the most demanding line in club hurling, Burke shares their disappointment yet feels it can provide a further incentive for his team to bring their 'A' game to the table.
"It had been three long years since we have been away from the All-Ireland club scene," Burke said. "Obviously we enjoyed the immediate aftermath of our victory over Ballycran but we have been working hard in the interim, although we will try and make the most of Christmas.
"But we will be keen to get onto the training ground as soon as possible because we are very anxious to give the best possible account of ourselves against this St Thomas side."
Cushendall's dismantling of Ballycran has offered the hope that the team can turn darkness into light in an All-Ireland context.
Burke added: "We have had hard matches in both the Antrim and Ulster championships and these have definitely been standing to us. We hope to prove this when we meet St Thomas. I felt against Ballycran we were well-equipped for what was coming our way so we were happy enough with our performance."
Cushendall are expected to be without the experienced Aaron Graffin who suffered a major leg injury against Ballycran and Burke acknowledges that his inspirational presence will be missed.
"Aaron is a great leader in the team, a real dynamo," explained Burke. "He can give everyone a lift."
Burke sees Cushendall's progress as significant, not only for the club, but important too in the context of Ulster hurling.
"We were very happy to get Ulster hurling back on top of the pile but now the challenge for us is to make a mark on the All-Ireland stage," he said.
"We might have collected a couple of trophies already but we would love to lift the All-Ireland trophy. But there are three other teams in the hunt who might be rated better than we are so we just have to wait and make the most of our capabilities in this upcoming All-Ireland semi-final."
Fergus McCambridge, Donal McNaughton, James McNaughton and Eoghan Campbell are all key figures in a Cushendall side that looks to Antrim veteran Neil McManus for sheer scoring power.
The canny McManus leads by superb example, his marksmanship and stylish creativity underpinning a team that is clearly ravenous to make a big impression.
"We feel we did not do ourselves justice in the All-Ireland final a few years ago and now we're getting the chance to put things right as we see it," Burke said. "The aim has been to get back there and hopefully go all the way this time. If we could just manage to win this match, it would be another huge step towards winning the biggest prize on offer."
The St Thomas's side that the Ulster champions will be facing is certainly not short on talent.
They showed in beating Liam Mellows in the Galway final that they possess pace, physique and scoring power - an outfit that is buttressed by experience and honed by a desire to do their county proud.
Galway skipper David Burke is the player who leads from the front, a stylish, confident hurler who has underlined his qualities well before now while Darragh Burke, Conor Conney, Cathal Burke and Fintan Burke are other mainstays in a line-up which boasts a particularly close bond.
"St Thomas's have a lot going for them but while we respect them, we don't fear them," Paddy Burke said.