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Dunloy built for future and now investment is paying off

 

By Declan Bogue

A couple of minutes after the whistle sounded for the end of the Antrim county hurling final, Pauline O'Kane made her way onto the Ballycastle pitch and planted a kiss on the cheek of her big brave tough son Gregory after Dunloy had dispatched Ruairi Óg Cushendall.

In the way that Antrim hurlers of a certain vintage can have several nicknames, 'Dick' was in his fourth year as manager of the club that he served with such distinction and this was his first Volunteer Cup, one of the hardest fought for prizes in club hurling.

In many ways, there are a lot of similarities between Dunloy back then and tomorrow's Ulster semi-final opponents Slaughtneil.

Hard to believe that Dunloy's first county title came in 1990. They went on to carve up the '90s with Ruairi Óg Cushendall, winning five titles apiece.

That team went on to become possibly the best ever club side not to win the Tommy Moore Cup, losing two braces of All-Ireland finals - 1995 and '96 as well as 2003 and '04.

With that level of expectation it comes as no surprise that O'Kane had felt a little heat under his collar. The role of senior team manager confers upon the bearer a status along the lines of Lord Mayor of any hurling-mad village. For many, it can be suffocating.

"Clubs are clubs. Everybody has an opinion on hurling in the club, as you know," he says with a light chuckle.

"Sometimes, clubs can be nasty. And our club is no different than any other GAA club, that's just bread and butter.

"This last few years, since I met this group of players and saw how they worked and the way they trained and wanted success, I always felt they would always improve year in, year out. That's what they have done."

The final was Dunloy's first in five years. Their first title in eight.

Some had spotted the rot setting in quicker than others. When Dunloy underage teams started being re-graded to the 'B' Championships, it focused minds sharpish.

Their Hurling Development Committee, spearheaded by the manager of the '90s edition Tom McClean, thought they might construct a ball wall.

"And then people asked if we could put a roof on the ball wall?" laughs club stalwart Tony Shivers.

A delegation was sent to Cork to examine club facilities. This being a time when the Celtic Tiger was roaring loudly, there was no limit to their ambition.

By the time the dreaming was finished, they had acquired a 15-acre site and had drawn up plans for an indoor hurling facility. The overall cost was estimated at just over a million. It ended up £1,200,000.

Dunloy bogged themselves into debt and with the project inching its way past projected costs, some in the club lost sleep worrying about what would become of them all.

Was it all a great white elephant? How would it ever wipe its face financially?

They got creative. They formed a supporters club, 'Club Dunloy'. They thought of hosting a 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire', and changed the name to 'Thousandaire'.

"Then we had to figure out what to do in the middle of a recession, would we go on or would we not go on. We went down to Croke Park, to meet the finance committee, and got a grant of €300,000."

At present, the debt sits at €200,000. It's entirely manageable. In the winter it becomes an auditorium. They host white collar boxing events. One year they had a 'Dancing On Ice' where former Antrim wing-back Seamus 'Mushy' McMullan's star burned brightly.

"You might as well be sitting in the Tullyglass!" says Shivers, drawing the comparison to the local hotel in Ballymena.

They have claimed the last three minor Championships in the county. Six minors from last year came onstream to the senior team from January.

It all came good in the third quarter of the Antrim county final. Two young bucks in Keelan Molloy and Conal 'Coby' Cunning were to the fore as Dunloy lashed 2-8 home to bury Cushendall.

Molloy and Cunning were of the new brigade, raised on a diet of ball walls and a touch sharpened in the cosy confines of the hurling academy.

"These boys, from knee height, now are really the first generation to play senior hurling that have come through this academy and having that facility," states O'Kane.

"In terms of under-6s right through, the advantage is you can hurl literally 10 or 11 months of the year. It doesn't matter if there is a layer of snow outside, it doesn't make any difference to the skill development of the players, so that has to be an advantage."

Two Sundays ago, two lorries brought the victorious Dunloy team back to the village.

Shivers estimates there were: "A thousand people there, from wee toddlers right up to, well, I saw Gary O'Kane (the youngest player on the pitch in the 1989 All-Ireland final) with tears tripping him. But you cannot buy that. You cannot put a price on that there."

On a July evening in 2010, as all the club teams from underage to senior paraded into the new academy on opening night, Philip Christie, a Central Council delegate from Armoy, turned to Shivers and asked a tough question.

"How are you ever going to pay for this?" he said.

And Shivers replied: "With Championship medals!"

  • Dunloy v Slaughtneil, Ulster SHC semi-final: Owenbeg, Sunday, 2.30pm

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