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McManus: why I'm going into battle for Cushendall

 

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Winning moment: Cushendall's Neil McManus raises his fist in celebration

Winning moment: Cushendall's Neil McManus raises his fist in celebration

Winning moment: Cushendall's Neil McManus raises his fist in celebration

First up, you have to ask Neil McManus about 'that' handpass.

You'll have seen it by now. Against Sarsfields earlier in the Antrim Championship, McManus got beyond his marker and despite his boot flying off, threw the ball in the air before turning his body and delivering an outrageous pass - with his other hand - to Fergus McCambridge to net for Ruairi Óg Cushendall.

Already, it has been watched over 85,000 times on Antrim's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

"I have patented it as 'The McManus'" the 30-year-old laughs about an instinctive piece of skill.

Life's good with him. Back living in Cushendall after a decade in Belfast, he feels glad to be back among his people on weeks such as these, a county final against Loughgiel this Sunday in Ballycastle looming.

The only fly in the ointment was his wife Aileen sustaining a torn cruciate ligament and missing Dunloy's camogie Championship campaign this summer.

It's an hour's commute to work at Andor Technology back in the city, but it's a price worth paying he insists.

"All you have to do is go for a walk in the evenings around the water's edge and it is hard to beat. The October evenings we have at the minute, it is hard not to appreciate it," McManus says.

The commute is necessary. North Antrim has and is ravaged by the loss of three major employers in the area; Michelin Tyres, tobacco giants Gallaher's and Patton Construction.

He has his ideas on regenerating the area. More on that later.

In the middle of August he watched Limerick's hurling All-Ireland win. Seeing Tom Condon enter the fray and Seamus Hickey on the bench had him fetching up memories of hurling against both at minor level and the last Antrim team at that level that could, possibly should, have won an All-Ireland.

Instead, his senior career has been one of perpetual crisis-management as a series of managerial departures, the latest being Sambo McNaughton and Woody McKinley, despairing of the inability to get full, year-long commitment from the Antrim senior team.

"It seems like the wheels come off in Antrim far easier than anywhere else. One bad result and 'ah Jeez, here we go boys.' There is a serious lack of steel there," says McManus.

"But, there were stages in my career when I would have been involved in situations like this. It changes as you get older. You can tell the younger lads are so intense, so driven.

"You have to tell them to enjoy it as much as they can because you can worry about the whole set-up around it, as I did and it wasn't doing me any favours."

Last summer also brought some intense physical pain, when McManus was targeted for some off-the-ball action against Carlow in Belfast and he needed six stitches in his scrotum. He played the very next week. All he will say on the issue is: "But sure if you got six stitches in the head, you would play the next day."

Turning 30, getting married and moving home has almost all come at once and has led to a deep period of personal reflection. This year, the Gaelic Player's Association are putting him through the Jim Madden Leadership Programme and he cannot believe the changes already in his outlook.

"I was the antitheses of growth," he insists.

"I didn't think about anything in regards to education, or anything at all outside of hurling. It was all hurling.

"It was only about a year or so ago that I realised there was a whole other side to me coming very quickly and I would like to prepare for it and explore it. This programme has been fantastic. I would recommend it to everybody to do it and do it at a younger age than I am. It will help you learn what you like, what you are strong at."

For now, his focus shifts to Sunday afternoon and that moment when referee Colum Cunning throws the ball in. Ruairi Óg Cushendall go to battle against Loughgiel Shamrocks and McManus is happy to immerse himself.

"It means an awful lot. It is still fairly tribal. That's not a bad word to use. People want Cushendall to win. We want to be kingpins of Antrim," he explains.

"It is so much to do with your tradition. It's part of the culture of the Glens. I maybe think of it in a much deeper way than a lot of other hurlers, I look at the Celtic mythology of the area. We are steeped in it and I find it very interesting.

"Years and years ago people were fighting over these lands and Clanns, and you represented your Clann in battle. This is the latest version of that."

This place, his home, is so much but could be so much more. In McManus, Cushendall has a one-man tourist board.

"Cushendall is very strong on a lot of things - music, dance, folklore. There is a lot more to it, outside of sport," he explains.

"Things are tied into it, people are interested in local history, why we are the way we are. There is a storytelling festival on at the minute.

"To anyone in the world, home is home and there will only be one place you call home. Cushendall is quite a special place. And we have a connection to it that seems to last and draws people back."

Last weekend, Limerick's smallest club Tournafulla had their day in the sun with a Junior Championship win.

The club secretary Seamus O'Sullivan captured what a win for a club could mean to small communities all over the country. They had a sub-goalkeeper in his 50s on the panel and a midfielder in his 40s.

"I'm stone delighted. It's a fantastic day for the club, a brilliant day for the parish. We've lost our shop, we've lost our post office, we've lost our Garda station, and the only thing that's keeping rural Ireland in places like Tournafulla alive is the bit of hurling."

After ten years without one, a puvb is due to open to Tournafulla. Cushendall is in no state of decline, but could make an awful lot more of itself with some clever marketing and the will.

McManus continues: "In a time when rural communities are decimated, like, we have lost a hotel and a bank has gone, but there is still a vibrancy about Cushendall and a vibrancy to do better. Tourism especially. You are on a very coastal, famous drive. We could take a lot more out of it in the future.

"The scenery is stunning. We have the folklore and dancing, a cultural identity to match it and people get a great buzz from seeing it and hurling feeds into that."

Ballycastle, Pairc MacUílín, Sunday, 3pm.

The rest is up to you.

Belfast Telegraph