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Old rivals ready to serve up a cracker

Bit of previous: Slaughtneil’s Brendan Rogers scores a goal against Dunloy in their 2017 semi-final clash
Bit of previous: Slaughtneil’s Brendan Rogers scores a goal against Dunloy in their 2017 semi-final clash
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Making the long, lonely tramp across the Athletic Grounds pitch last Saturday to conduct interviews with the Clontibret camp after they had beaten Crossmaglen Rangers in the Ulster Club Football quarter-finals, there was only one thought.

There was no earthly way that the pitch, cut up and boggy right through the central channel, not to mention the state of the sideline that gets the most footfall on the stand side, would have been fit to host a hurling final eight days later.

With Slaughtneil and Dunloy set to meet in the Four Seasons Cup decider this Sunday, the change of planned venue is a pity for a few reasons.

First off, the Ulster Council need to be applauded for preserving the integrity of the game. Two years ago, Slaughtneil beat Down champions Ballygalget on an Armagh pitch that wasn't great. There were gentle complaints from both camps that day about how the surface was not conducive to good hurling.

Hurling people can sometimes pass as groundsmen for Centre Court at Wimbledon, such is their insistence on a good surface.

That's fine, as the concerns centre on what makes it good for players. The grass has to have a little growth in order to allow the ball to be risen first time, which improves the quality of the game.

When players bemoan the loss of Casement Park, somewhere around the top of their laments is the fabled, raised surface which, for stars from all of the top counties, ranked almost as high as Semple Stadium in Thurles and on a par with Croke Park, which has consistency issues.

The Ulster Council originally moved the Slaughtneil v Dunloy game to Celtic Park in Derry. This was puzzling, as the last time these two teams met in the 2017 semi-final they tossed for home advantage and it went the way of the Derry club, and so it was hosted a few miles from their heartland, in Owenbeg.

It was said there was an understanding that the next time they would meet, the advantage would fall in Dunloy's favour, so the appointment of Celtic Park was baffling. In the end, it had to be moved to Newry as the main road leading into Derry will be closed.

The Athletic Grounds stands as probably the best ground of its type in Ulster. Facilities for spectators are excellent, the ability to broadcast the game is perfect and the atmosphere is seldom anything but gripping.

It's worth mentioning all that because the thrills and spills of Ulster Club football were captured perfectly on Saturday night by BBC NI's live streaming of the Clontibret-Cross game. They are a broadcasting company that take plenty of flak for their perceived bias against Gaelic Games, but there are certainly signs that the attitude has undergone a fundamental shift.

That broadcast and the 45-minute highlights package of the four Ulster quarter-finals represent the greatest body of work they have done in covering what is a hugely popular competition.

In previous years, you were lucky to have the scorelines read out in the news bulletins.

But here you had crisp camera work, excellent commentary teams, analysis bites from Oisin McConville and Martin McHugh and entertaining post-match interviews with spectators, with McConville's son Ryan offering his own matter-of-fact viewpoint. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

There should be some context added about the BBC coverage. They are still largely hamstrung by copyright issues and are very much junior partners of RTÉ and TG4 and even the GAA Now online service.

If other games are being shown live, then they have no chance of covering a match. That's why, despite their best intentions, they will be unable to broadcast this Sunday's hurling final.

Which is, we might add, another pity, because the rest of the country was taken aback at the sheer quality of the Antrim hurling final in which Dunloy beat Cushendall.

The passion of club hurling in Antrim has never been in doubt, but it was still instructive to note that the skills of the leading protagonists were in full view for the rest of the world to see.

The stage is now set in Newry for what has become the biggest game in Ulster hurling.

When they met in that aforementioned game two years ago, Slaughtneil were already a seasoned outfit and Dunloy were seen as just too young.

Now, things are different. It will be a cracker. Ulster hurling needs another huge game to spread. Make sure to get there.

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