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McManus knows his men will have to box clever

Cushendall skipper Neil hopes to land Sarsfields knockout

By Neil McManus

Sometime in the near future, Neil McManus of Cushendall, Antrim and Ulster will assess his own body, mind and circumstances and make an unusual decision.

Right now, should injury spare him, he feels he will make an attempt to become a boxer. Professional, of course.

He has had little formal training, but the fight game consumes him like nothing else.

What appeals? The accountability. The loneliness of the training. The hard miles that recede with the kaleidoscopic supernova of the fight night. Picking his song for the walk to the ring, milking it.

"I'd take my time and get a suntan under those lights!" he says.

"Nowadays, loads of hurlers and footballers are spending hours by themselves in the gym, at a wall ball, doing mobility in the pool… I am one of those people that I will be doing something every day. If it is not mobility in the pool, it will be in the gym doing the sessions or a core session," he says.

"Most of my training is done against myself. I enjoy that, the fact that you are against yourself. I think that is something that gives you a slight insight into how a boxer would train and condition themselves."

Ever since he has been old enough to keep the eyes open late, he and his brother John would cram onto the sofa alongside their father Hugh to watch big Saturday fight nights.

Ask him his view on the best pound-for-pound fighter and that knowledge flows.

"Andre Ward. I don't believe Mayweather or Pacquio are. They are too old now. Mayweather just ducked and dived his whole life and in my opinion he had some brilliant fights early on in his career, but the last decade was completely unremarkable.

"One of the best fights I ever saw, it was a long time ago now, it was Chris Eubank's fight against Joe Calzaghe. An absolute classic. Two boys going toe-to-toe and Calzaghe came away from that. He was accused of ducking and diving and he fought Bernard Hopkins towards the end of his career but he did beat him, he did stop him."

He gets on a roll.

"Carl Froch fan as well! The man had a chin made of stainless steel, he could take a punch better than anybody. His fights with Mikkel Kessler were brilliant. The second fight, the one he won, was as good as any you are likely to see.

"Jesus, I could talk all day about boxing!"

We have to suspend boxing talk to get onto hurling. This weekend Ruairi Óg Cushendall seek to take out a former heavyweight of the division in Galway's Sarsfields. They won consecutive All-Irelands in 1993 and 1994, powered by 1987 Texaco Hurler of the Year, Joe Cooney.

A rash of players from that side have sons on this team, including two of Cooneys; Joseph and Kevin. It was also a golden period for Cushendall, with three Ulster titles in the '80s and two in the '90s.

But McManus will argue those sides ultimately never done themselves justice.

"Definitely," he says

"Cushendall during the '90s had a brilliant team. Even themselves, they would feel like they under-achieved.

"The best club team that I ever watched was the Dunloy team of the '90s and early '00s. How they never won an All-Ireland is beyond me. Were they in four semi-finals? They were an outstanding outfit."

He uses their excellence as yardstick, knowing that the gap between club teams in Ulster is mostly imagined.

"If you look at that Dunloy team," he continues, "they beat Portumna. They beat Mount Sion.

"They were able to beat all the big guns. They drew with Birr in an All-Ireland final. Dunloy beat the best teams in Ireland. All right, it was done in All-Ireland semi-finals and not finals, but they were an incredible outfit."

His generosity stretches to their Ulster final victory over Slaughtneil in late October, which drifted into extra-time.

"Some of the hurling on show there would not have looked out of place on St Patrick's Day and that's the truth.

"Slaughtneil are every bit as good a team as anyone in Ulster and in Ireland."

Cushendall feel that Ulster title came a year late. In February 2014, the Ruairi Óg family was torn asunder when joint-manager and one of the Antrim players from the 1989 All-Ireland final, James McNaughton passed away at the age of 50.

An Ulster club would have been nice to remember him by but Portaferry had different ideas. McManus refuses to let it be labelled a 'cause' though. His legacy in their hearts and minds is much greater than that.

"I wouldn't like to use a tragic event like that to say it inspires us. I don't believe in that," he explains.

"First and foremost, you do things for yourself and for your team. We are all extremely proud of our club and we are doing it for our club.

"What James meant to me personally, and all of the lads on the team, goes beyond hurling. What he did for us over the course of our careers, it would be a slight on him to dedicate one hurling match to him."

As a consequence, this group of players are knit tighter together than most. Best friends, comrades, fighters that never know when they are beaten.

McManus' belief is them is unshakeable. "I wouldn't be swapping the panel of players that I am going into Saturday's match with any other club in Ireland."

That has to count for something.

Belfast Telegraph


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