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Slaughtneil refreshed, locked and loaded for more glory

What a feeling: Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane has his sights set on even more success
What a feeling: Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane has his sights set on even more success
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

At half-time, the rumours swept through the crowd in attendance for the Antrim senior hurling final in Ballycastle on a late October afternoon. Ballycran were handing out Slaughtneil, the side going for a third consecutive Ulster hurling title, a real lesson.

A mixture of bemusement at what was unfolding 55 miles away at Corrigan Park led to an instant understanding of what was at stake for the second half; whoever from Loughgiel and Cushendall could come through, their chances of provincial glory were hugely enhanced in the absence of the Derry men.

With their twin successes in football and hurling and the heroics of their warrior camogie team, we had become accustomed to thinking of Slaughtneil as some master race in the GAA. But inside the bubble, hurling manager Michael McShane could see the cracks.

"The signs were there," says the Ballycastle insurance salesman.

"We were about to hit the wall somewhere along the line. The players, especially the dual players, had been going three, maybe four, years non-stop on the club scene alone, never mind their inter-county activities.

"Even through the Derry Championship last year, we weren't performing to the level we had been in the two or three years previous to that. I was conscious that there was a fairly strong mental fatigue apparent in the players.

"We were trying our best to do something about that, but ultimately the only thing that helps that is long-term rest. And we weren't going to get that until we were beat. We got that because Ballycran on the day were much better than us, they were much hungrier than us. They hurled a lot better than us."

What he says next is instructive.

"Looking at it from the side of the fence in 2019, it was the best thing ever happened us. The players needed it. Nobody wanted it, nobody wanted to be beat and you want to win everything, but having lost the Ulster semi-final and having the winter to go away and not have to worry about training, being able to lead normal lives, the players have come back this year and they are probably hungrier than they have ever been. They look fresher than they have ever done," he says.

After that defeat, McShane himself took some time to think about his own future. He had been with this group on this journey for a long time and with Mickey Moran stepping away from the footballers, it might have felt like a logical jumping-off point for McShane too with a young family.

"I suppose human nature in the aftermath of a defeat like that would make you say that it is the time to go. But I always believe you should never have a knee-jerk reaction, or making a decision in the heat of a moment," he explains.

"The overriding thought for me was, after having achieved so much with Slaughtneil and this group of players, having asked them to do so much and sacrifice so much, I thought it would be the wrong time to walk away off the back of a 10-point defeat in an Ulster club semi-final."

Instead, he came at it from a different angle. His Ballycastle comrade Cormac Donnelly had been the trainer for the previous few seasons and when he couldn't commit, he brought in Alex Campbell, who had led St Brigid's of Cloughmills to an Ulster Intermediate title in 2016.

The selectors from the club were also freshened up and in came Dr Noel Brick, a lecturer in Sports and Exercise Psychology at Ulster University, who has challenged not just the players, but the management team, in healthy ways.

They face Middletown of Armagh in the curtain-raiser to the Ulster club semi-finals tomorrow in the Athletic Grounds, Armagh, that game immediately followed by the meeting of Dunloy and Ballycran.

After Slaughtneil's football semi-final defeat to Glen, this is the longest that McShane has had exclusive access to the players.

In the past, they wouldn't have hid behind a lament for the lack of touch and sharp hurling work put in, but these things are clearly an advantage.

"We were able to get that in place very quickly after the footballers lost the semi-final. It's new territory for us," says McShane.

"We just hadn't that luxury of having the players and being able to train hard, have a couple of days rest and coming back to the next training session fresh to go hard at it again. We were always trying to make sure you weren't overloading the players to make sure they weren't doing too much.

"Even through their championships it was the same, they were playing hurling championship one week, football championship the next week," he adds.

"We are doing twice as many hurling training sessions than we would have been doing before and we are able to implement our own physical training which is maybe more adapted to hurling than football.

"And the players were obviously disappointed after the football semi-final.

"They got themselves re-focused quickly and realised this is an opportunity now for them to really focus on hurling and we seem to be really embracing it and enjoying it."

Middletown and Slaughtneil have crossed paths before, back in 2016 in Newry.

Not much has changed. Game on.

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