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Slaughtneil standing on the brink of hurling history

By Declan Bogue

Last Saturday, Slaughtneil's hurlers - including the several footballers that humbled St Vincent's in the All-Ireland semi-final seven days previously - played an in-house game as preparation for today's hurling semi-final against Cuala.

Although the hits were fierce, the most impressive sight was that of a dozen subs also wanting to get into a 15 on 15 game. In what other club does that happen?

It's something their manager, Michael McShane, is grateful for. Forty-two at training. No need to do any physical work, or work on the mentality of his squad of born winners.

In many ways, he knows he has it easy as he spends most of his working life travelling around Ulster on his rounds for Lockton Insurance Brokers.

The hours in the car are passed with calls about work, and calls about hurling.

"Flat out working, flat out managing, flat out everything. I have hardly time to lick my lips at the minute," he quips.

And then he will let the music playlist transport him; if he wants to relax he will set Christy Moore off and sing along. Should he be heading to training and "needs revved up" it will be ACDC's 'Back In Black'.

He spends most of his life like this, between work and hurling, away from wife Denise and sons Ruairi (8) and Dara (5). What makes it worthwhile is what happens at the end of big games.

"They are the first two guys over the fence to run over to me, the first two guys I would be looking for," he smiles at the thought of it.

"I like them to come along to see the matches and be part of it. That's the way I was brought up, I was brought up in a hurling household and I was attending matches with my father when I was their age.

"I know how good that was and how it set me up in life," he adds.

His father, Brian, is still hale and hearty having celebrated his 84th birthday on Thursday.

He will be in the Athletic Grounds today hoping that Slaughtneil can make very special history by becoming only the second-ever club to reach All-Ireland finals in both hurling and football.

As a family, hurling is what they do. After Michael and Denise married, he coached Denise and her Lavey team mates to a club camogie All-Ireland title in 2009.

Nowadays, her role is a background, supportive one.

"There is probably a time like the last few weeks where she would have felt like a single parent as I am away most nights - last night I was sitting doing video analysis to half one in the morning," he reveals.

The lonely hours on the couch is just a manager matching the dedication of a special group, one that have been recognised on the awards circuit, such as their Local Heroes Award at the recent Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards night in Belfast. One curiosity about Slaughtneil is that on all three fronts on which they are chasing success, they have 'outside men' in charge. And each of them are told when they come into the club that it is a dual club. No ifs or buts. No uncertainty.

"It was very important that when I went there, I realised what Slaughtneil are all about," explains McShane.

"What's important to the club, what's important to the teams belonging to the club. The way they think, the way they prepare and the way they are built to win, their togetherness... At the end of the day I can't ever put my hand up and say I am a Slaughtneil man. I am not. I am a Ballycastle man and I will always be a Ballycastle man. But I am 100 per cent totally committed to the job I am doing there."

He continues: "From day one when I became manager, I was made feel very welcome and part of their club in every possible way. There is a great wave of enthusiasm and optimism around the club. It would be impossible not to get swept up along with that."

He has a little bit of 'The Town' along with him in the job, in the form of Cormac Donnelly, the former Antrim full-back who doubles up as coach and a selector.

Local men Dermot Doherty, Joe McCloskey and Barney McEldowney make up the rest of the management team.

And everywhere he goes, the questions are always the same.

"If I had a pound for every time I have been asked over the last few months what the secret is to Slaughtneil's success, I wouldn't have to work," jokes McShane. "People in Ballycastle would be very supportive of it.

"My friends and family would all be 100 per cent behind it. I have Cormac with me as well. There is a fantastic curiosity out there from people on Slaughtneil; what are they eating, what are they doing, what do they do different?

"But there is no definitive answer to that, outside of hard work, they are no different from anyone else."

Because of their dual status, a great number of the team have become accustomed to playing in pressured situations.

It cuts out nerves, panicking and poor decision-making.

But still, they are hurling in the dark at this point.

"Going into the All-Ireland series, there is no template that you can go and say, 'this is how this team did it in the past and we will try to avoid the pitfalls'," explains McShane.

"We are pioneers here. We are the first team to go for this since St Finbarr's win 1981 but the whole sports arena in the GAA is completely different now.

"We just have to try and work it out for ourselves.

"So far, so good. It didn't hinder the footballers one bit and I don't think it will hinder us either."

  • Slaughtneil v Cuala, All-Ireland Club Hurling semi-final: Athletic Grounds, Saturday, 3.00pm

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