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McKinley has pangs of regret 30 years on from Antrim's greatest day

 

Legend: Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley
Legend: Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Once a year, the Antrim team that played in the 1989 All-Ireland final against Tipperary will nominate a quiet bar nestled in the armpit of one of the Glens and meet up for a round of reminiscing.

Everyone is welcome and anyone in the bar who wants to sit in and give their opinion on hurling, or just enjoy old yarns getting another run out, can do so. Just as the '89 Antrim team were reared on stories of the team that made the 1943 final, these stories will be preserved until the time that Antrim can once again look the establishment in the eye.

Thirty years on, Tipperary are back in the final against Kilkenny. The only Antrim involvement in the once-more closed shop of the biggest hurling day comes in the form of Belfast man Cairbre ÓCairealláin, Tipperary's strength and conditioning coach.

Back then, these weeks had hype about hurling never seen before or since in Antrim. Twenty three newspaper men and two camera crews arrived for a press evening in Ballymena and most just decided to hang around for a couple of weeks, such was the colour of these characters with their rich nicknames; 'Humpy', 'Sambo', 'Woody', 'Beaver', 'Cloot' and so on. And most importantly, they were available almost all the time in an era before press officers believing their role is to shut down media access.

Only this week, the spectacular RTÉ series 'The Game' spent a decent portion of time dredging up old footage of what happened between the semi-final win over Offaly and the abject final showing when they were beaten by 18 points.

Watching the old grainy coverage sent Dominic 'Woody' McKinley towards the bedroom in a fit of curiosity. At the time he was a 29-year-old factory worker playing centre-back. He has given his life to hurling since, being manager of Antrim three times since his playing career ended.

But the other night, he managed to get back into the official team blazer for the final.

"It was sticky enough in a few places, but it got on," he laughs.

The blazers were just another one of dozens of distractions the team could have done without. It's become the done thing to cite all these factors - which also included team captain Ciaran Barr getting married before the final - and hold them up as what not to do.

But as Woody points out: "At that time, we were so glad, we wanted the attention.

"We were people who spent so long way back in the picture and we got this day we had dreamt about for so long. So we wanted the attention. We never had anything like it, we wanted it and maybe we got too much and didn't deal with it."

The final went in a blur. A high ball in the first half should have been a routine clearance for Antrim's musician goalkeeper Niall Patterson, but instead it glanced off his stick and into the net. In the second half, Nicky English took over. It became a rout. Even now, there is a small bit of bad blood over loose talk passed in the then-traditional banquet which both teams would attend the following day.

"There were a couple of comments that came out that time that they didn't respect us, they wanted to beat a bigger team - which didn't go down too well in Antrim at that time. But it has gone by now!" says Paul 'Humpy' McKillen, the Antrim midfielder that day.

McKillen would later win an All-Star in 1993 for his brilliance but he sees no way forward for Antrim or Ulster hurling in the short to medium term.

"It's sad to see. You take the top teams now. Everybody else is just so, so far behind them. And I mean far. Take Limerick, Cork, Wexford, Galway and the teams in the final," he says.

"They are moving on and leaving the rest far behind.

"I don't see an Ulster team getting there for a long, long time."

The '89 final carries many regrets, but drill down into that team and they all say that the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kilkenny - where they led for most of the game and had even drawn level with a minute of normal time left - is the real killer.

"'91 still burns in our hearts and will until the day we die," says Woody.

"That was the year we had Kilkenny to the pin of their collar. And we should have no excuses. We should have seen the thing out. And DJ Carey, Liam Fennelly, Christy Heffernan, they broke our hearts. That was the year we should - should - have won the All-Ireland. We had enough firepower that day, we were in a position and we didn't see it over the line.

"What I reflect on… I was captain that year and there was a stage near the end of the game I said to myself, 'F*** me, I am going to have to go and learn Irish for the final, to talk after it'.

"And if I was reflecting on that, what were the rest of them not reflecting on? For those split seconds, we lost ourselves. Maybe that is what cost us, I don't know. Just that wee wavering in your brain, my concentration went for a few seconds.

"It breaks my heart yet. '89, we had our excuses ready-made. '91, in Croke Park, Kilkenny on the rack, we should have had them."

But that's just another layer of it. It makes for a great 'what-if' avenue to explore when they meet up annually.

"The first thing you think of are the men who aren't with us anymore," adds Woody about the men who have passed on to their eternal reward since.

"James and Danny McNaughton, and Jim (Nelson, manager) of course. That's the first thing that comes into your head and it comes faster to you, as we know. You are glad you are alive and still able to talk about it.

"People asked me if I would give my life over to do it all again just to get to an All-Ireland final in 1991, and I say, 'yes'. Absolutely. The memories I have you could never replace them, the bus in, meeting people involved in hurling, a chat, and being known as a hurler.

"A person who did your best. We can't all be winners at the end of the day."

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