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Slaughtneil's double-treble dream almost close enough to touch

 

By Declan Bogue

The talk all around Ulster is of one club, three teams, three codes, and a collective, incredible goal.

Last year Slaughtneil became the first club to win football, hurling and camogie provincial titles. It was a stupendous feat in ambition and scale. But now they are a mere 60 odd minutes from a repeat as the Derry and Ulster champions get ready for the meeting with Cavan Gaels in tomorrow's final in the Athletic Grounds.

As a demonstration of just how far they have come, chairman Sean McGuigan articulates it perfectly.

"Twenty years ago, we were getting beat in the first round of every Championship, especially football. We couldn't get over the first round," he sighs.

"The occasion would get to us, our discipline wasn't great and we would end up with a man on the line. This younger generation, we will have to put up a monument to them in Slaughtneil because I don't think it will ever happen again."

It's a long way from the carnival games of the '60s and '70s. Or perhaps, these games are carnivals all of their own now.

In a playing career that spanned three decades, assistant manager John Joe Kearney recalls: "We got to a Championship final in 1969 against Bellaghy and they were the kingpins of Derry football at that stage.

"We were beaten by four points and on the day we were a player or two short.

"In those days, there were a lot of carnivals and that was a big thing. Carnival football might have been on any day of the week and then a match on a Sunday.

"To be quite honest, football-wise at carnivals, although we only had the bare 15 or 17 players, you never had to say to anybody about being there for a carnival match.

"Without question, they were up there. We were always successful in them and if the Championship had been run on a carnival basis we probably would have won one or two."

They win plenty now.

But on weekends such as these, it's important to think of the people who made the club what it is.

Men such as Thomas Cassidy, the constant touchstone across three codes but who definitely cemented hurling and camogie as important strands of the club.

"There is many a conversation had and thinking about how proud he would have been," says his daughter Aoife, who lifted the All-Ireland Camogie Championship in February and successfully defended the Ulster Camogie Championship last month to keep this remarkable run going.

"But it is what it is and we know how proud he would be of the club and of everybody and how unreal it is. It has been amazing and I hope it continues to be amazing."

Kearney says: "Thomas, God rest his soul, had a big heart.

"He was very much into his hurling and camogie. He played football as well with the senior team in his time but he was more into the hurling and camogie."

He continues: "There's another, my brother Bernard, who was chairman of the club for a number of years, died the year before we won our first Championship of this run, 2013.

"There were many more men in the club who wouldn't have missed a match, Kearney men and McGuigan men, Cassidys, Thomas as well, that died a few years young before all this happened. They would have been over the moon to have seen it and be part of it. But that's the way life goes."

In the RTÉ documentary 'The Geansai', Sean McGuigan featured heavily. In a walk through the local woods, he shared his thoughts.

"I talked a lot about Thomas Cassidy in that programme and I don't want to keep talking about him but he was the backbone behind that hurling team that played against Dunloy (in the stunning Ulster Championship win)."

The bunting has stayed up around the clubrooms since the camogie and hurling finals.

Slaughtneil are now media darlings, the subject of some BBC fluff piece recently when they sent Adrian Chiles and Christine Lampard up to sample a hurling training session.

All of this can catch Sean McGuigan by surprise.

"You do have to pinch yourself," he says.

"Every other south and north Derry club is getting a wee bite on the bum and saying, 'listen, if these fellas can do it, there is nothing more special about them than us'.

"You just have to instil that discipline into the team and buy into your managers. Glen Maghera and Swatragh and all these clubs have this talent," he adds.

For all that, the neighbours have been neighbourly. In recent days the rain coming off the slopes of Carn Togher mountain has rendered the Slaughtneil pitch a quagmire.

Alternative arrangements had to be made and they have had the use of Bellaghy and Swatragh's pitches.

The greatest triumph Slaughtneil ever achieved wasn't on the pitch, but in the hearts and minds of the people of the community.

Founded in 1992, the Carntogher Community Association has brought together the various strands of the community, the GAA club, the Irish Language movement and the Drumnaph Nature Reserve.

The buy-in from the community at large has brought them to the precipice of history.

There is no secret to it, other than hard work.

Cavan Gaels

Slaughtneil

Ulster SFC Final:

Athletic Grounds, Sunday, 3.00pm

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