ULSTER hurling is today still coming to terms with the sad loss of former Cushendall and Antrim player James McNaughton whose untimely passing at the age of 50 has left a void within the sport.
nd in a shoal of tributes which have poured in, perhaps current Antrim and Ulster player Neil McManus, who regards himself as "privileged" to follow in the footsteps of the Ruairi Og icon, best encapsulates the feelings within the GAA fraternity and the hurling community in particular.
"He was a hero to so many of us, a role model as a player and manager and a giant of the Association within Cushendall and Antrim," states McManus.
Indeed, James was the quintessential hurler – strong, skilful, competitive and fair.
He lined out with Antrim in the 1989 All-Ireland final against Tipperary when the wizardry of Nicky English in particular sabotaged the Saffrons' dreams of glory but not before the lion-hearted James had led a show of defiance.
Eight Antrim Championship medals, seven Ulster club titles and a brace of provincial championship medals with his county testified to a highly decorated playing career.
And when he transferred his talents to the managerial sphere he was no less successful, garnering Antrim and Ulster senior titles.
He memorably led Cushendall into the All-Ireland club semi-final in 2009 when it took an inspirational performance from John Mullane to just get De La Salle, the Waterford and Munster champions, over the line.
James's emphasis on positive, attacking play with the focus invariably on a high work-rate – something he himself never failed to deliver – not only brought success but did much to help enhance the image of the sport.
He has left a rich legacy and the McNaughton name will certainly live on in an Antrim hurling context as his three sons are members of the Cushendall side.
Antrim chairman Jim Murray, Ulster team manager Gregory O'Kane, Ulster Council chairman Martin McAviney and hurling liaison officer Jimmy Darragh are among those who have already joined in lavish tributes.
His honesty, integrity and diligence set him apart as did his commitment and fierce pride.
James's funeral will take place in Cushendall tomorrow.