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Slaughtneil determined to be better prepared this time around



On the ball: Conor McAllister reckons his side are better equipped this year ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final

On the ball: Conor McAllister reckons his side are better equipped this year ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final

On the ball: Conor McAllister reckons his side are better equipped this year ahead of their All-Ireland semi-final

In the final analysis of Slaughtneil's hurling journey last year, manager Michael McShane admitted that although they were trying to fight off negative thoughts ahead of meeting Dublin's Cuala in the semi-final in the Athletic Grounds, they hadn't the hurling work to carry them through.

After 11 minutes, the wunderkind that is Con O'Callaghan was alive to a ball crossed in from the corner, he turned his man and stuck the sliotar into the top corner. 1-5 to 0-2. 1-13 to 0-5 at half-time, the difference between the two was pure stickwork.

Looking at the differences in that game and today's All-Ireland semi-final against Munster superclub Na Piarsaigh of Limerick, the Slaughtneil midfielder Conor McAllister feels they are in a better place now.

"This year we have got more hurling done. We had four very good friendlies there; there would have been a few scouts at the games I am sure," he half laughs, fully aware of the subterfuge that can arise at this level.

"There was a big push on to get a lot more hurling done.

"We played Tipperary and Carlow and Carlow IT. And then we went on a weekend away and the reserves would play on Saturday and the seniors would play on the Sunday. The reserves played an under-21 Kilkenny select team and the seniors played a first team and a London team."

The Tipp team wasn't a 15 that you might expect to start a Championship match, but there were enough big hitters. Jason Forde, Cathal Barrett, James Barry and Bonner Maher all made appearances at some stage.

For the 20-year-old McAllister, a student teacher only starting his placement in nearby Glenullin Primary School this week, it was an eye-opener.

"We were a wee bit naive going into the Cuala game last year in that we didn't realise the step up in standard. We are pretty new to the All-Ireland series and we are looking to test ourselves against the Cuala, Na Piarsiagh and Liam Mellows, top sides," he states.

"We definitely feel a lot better as a hurling team now going into Na Piarsaigh, than we were last year going into the Cuala game.

"We are not silly, we know the challenge ahead of us and Na Piarsaigh are a good team. We have to believe, go out there and give it your all, give it a lash and see how it goes."

McAllister knows days like these only come around a couple of times in a player's career, because he missed out on so much last year.

A couple of nights after they won the Ulster hurling title by thumping Ballygalget last winter, he was assaulted on a night out in Belfast. He had a few teeth knocked out and was left in bad shape.

"Ah well I wasn't expecting anything like that," he reluctantly says.

"I better not say too much about it yet. But a bit of a slap in the mouth, a couple of teeth knocked out and a sore mouth alright."

He is one of the many dual players in the club. During the Derry football Championship, he was used to coming on towards the end of games and his athleticism was an asset. He made another appearance from the bench against Kilcoo in the Ulster club preliminary round, but because of his injuries he was unable to feature against Omagh, Kilcar and Cavan Gaels as they successfully defended their Seamus McFerran Cup.

"Yeah it was disappointing," he recalls.

"You work so hard to get near the football team and it's very hard to break onto the team. It's just a privilege to be getting game time and for that to be taken away was obviously really frustrating for me."

That sort of thing can also shake a man's confidence.

"Yeah, I know where you are coming from," he agrees.

"But I suppose it is motivation when you are out watching. It puts a push on you to get back and train harder and do what I could."

If McAllister is an unusual surname for the area, that's because his father Brian hailed from Moneyglass. His mother though, is as Derry as they come, an O'Kane from south Derry.

February is an enormous month for Slaughtneil. They have All-Ireland semi-finals in both codes, and it is often said however that the real driving force within the club are the camogie team, who have already made it to their All-Ireland final, with victory over Thomastown of Kilkenny last month.

Conor is able to see that up close with the commitment of his sister, Brigeen, corner back with the camogs.

"The drive they have is amazing," marvels her older brother.

"They are out training at six o'clock in the evening, when most are on their way home from work. Any time you are up in the gym it is full of camogs and like us, they are travelling all over the place training as well.

"But then you see them show some serious grit and they never give up. You seen it there against Thomastown, it went to extra-time and they found that extra breath, the second wind and they pulled out the result.

"They had struggled to get past the likes of Loughgiel and Rossa, coming out of Derry. And they made the breakthrough. Hopefully they can retain that as well, it would be some boost for the club."

Often, the two of them puck around the walls of the house, but as he says, "It ends up in a falling out more than anything, she doesn't give you anything."

Families like that, is what the Slaughtneil experience is all about.

Slaughtneil vs Na Piarsaigh

All-Ireland Club Hurling semi-final:

Parnell Park, today, 2.00 pm

Belfast Telegraph