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Declan Bogue: Emotional O'Kane aims to honour his parents with more glory for Dunloy

 

Old rivals: Dunloy’s Kevin McKeague is closed down by Slaughtneil’s Brendan Rodgers in the 2017 Ulster Championship
Old rivals: Dunloy’s Kevin McKeague is closed down by Slaughtneil’s Brendan Rodgers in the 2017 Ulster Championship
Dunloy’s Nigel Elliott and Slaughtneil’s Meehaul McGrath
Gregory with his mother Pauline
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

In RTÉ's stirring documentary series earlier this year on hurling - 'The Game' - there were many moments that felt like a gut-punch, but one more than any other.

Former Galway captain Joe Connolly said to camera, "One part of you says 'don't take it too seriously' but I've had a very rough year. I was very sick for the last year, hospitalisations, and the previous year that Gerry, my brother, died, right, and you start to say 'where is hurling in all of this, like?' And at the far end of both episodes I am saying it is ****ing more important than ever."

It's like that for Dunloy's hurling manager Gregory 'Dick' O'Kane too. Heading into tomorrow's Ulster senior club final against Slaughtneil, he does so without his two greatest supporters, Paddy ('Pappy') and Pauline, Derry natives who married and settled in Dunloy, and died within weeks of each other last winter.

"Your mother and your father, they are irreplaceable. You never, ever can replace that when you lose them," explains Gregory.

"As a player, they followed me everywhere with the county and with the club. And we just had so many good days and great years.

"Then when I went into management, they would have been there. My father was always in around the training.

"That's a huge loss. In terms of hurling, to be involved in hurling this year in particular, it is a great distraction, as such. As I said before, hurling has always been good to me. It's always been there and it's been good to me this year as a manager."

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He's immensely thankful for his own tribe. He and wife Oonagh, a Rasharkin woman, have five children; Blátháin, Clannaid, Bríd, Padai and Caoilbhe. Their energy helps him. He keeps an old line from basketball coaching legend John Wooden close to him: "The most important thing in the world is family and love."

Love binds him to Dunloy. At the start of this decade he had a few seasons as a county senior selector with Dinny Cahill's return, but time flies by in the yellow and green of Dún Lathaí.

He returned and led them to the 2017 Antrim Championship, Pauline pictured gripping her son tight at the final whistle. As a player, he displayed immense courage. A nerveless free-taker and classy hurler - along with being a fine footballer too - he dug Dunloy out of countless holes.

Without him, they wouldn't have accrued his outrageous personal haul of 11 Antrim Championships, 10 Ulster titles and four appearances in the All-Ireland final. They reached the final hurdle only to be upended by Birr in 1995 and 2003, Sixmilebridge in 1996 and Newtownshandrum in 2004.

"We had the time of our lives," he smiles. "We just had great campaigns over the years and I was probably surprised it lasted so long, but once you are in that bubble, you just want to win as much as you can.

"We should have beaten Birr (in 1995). The first day was the one that got away. But Birr were an exceptional team. They were probably the Kilkenny of hurling at that stage.

"We had no regrets, you compete on the day and if you are good enough, you are good enough. If you are not, you are not and you move on."

It's that kind of attitude that permeates his life. As a building contractor doing blockwork and roofing, he is running jobs in Belfast and Ballymena with another project due to start in Coleraine.

With that, and five children, he didn't need the responsibility of being Dunloy manager. Or the grisly job of completely restructuring his backroom team. The jubilation bursting from the clips of the team coming back into their village after defeating Cushendall in the county final shows how these people don't just love their hurling, but are consumed whole by it.

The Ulster semi-final defeat to Slaughtneil in 2017 came at a delicate stage of the team's development. On the balance of it, they were ahead of their own curve.

Now though, they are a few years down the line of an excellent strength and conditioning programme run by Eoin McNicholl. O'Kane has former players Paudie Shivers and Mickey McClements in as coaches.

O'Kane is secure enough to go along with the famous Christy Ring quote: "Let no one say the best hurlers belong to the past, they're with us now and better yet to come."

O'Kane insists: "The skill level has gone through the roof.

"Your average player now is an athlete, 12, 13 stone and he is probably playing with a 34" hurl. That is the template now.

"The modern day hurler, take the wall balls, the 4g surfaces for training on in winter, the facilities (Dunloy have a state of the art indoor hurling pitch), the infrastructure that clubs, colleges and counties have now, well that's only going to improve their skills sets. It's inevitable then that the pace of the game goes up, the skills go up and the athlete improves."

As the biggest game remaining in Ulster senior hurling throws in tomorrow, we get to see it close up.

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