By Neil McKnight
Loughgiel Shamrocks stars are desperate to stamp their names into the club’s history books when they battle it out for the All-Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship on St Patrick’s Day.
And what better way for the club’s excitement-filled fans to drown their Shamrocks on Saturday by watching Loughgiel lift the trophy for the first time since 1983.
Manager PJ O’Mullan is confident his players can pull off a historic victory when they take on Offaly side Coolderry.
It’s been a long wait for the Loughgiel faithful to make the special trip to Dublin’s Croke Park and O’Mullan believes his players won’t let the opportunity slip through their fingers.
He said: “We haven’t been there, I think it’s nearly 30 years coming, so it’s a new generation and this group of fellas want to create their own bit of history in the club, it’s something that we’ve strived to, we’ve been working hard this last two years.
“Some of them have been working for eight or nine years to get to this stage and it might not come round that often and it’s here now and we’ll deal with it now. The whole object is to bring the cup home.”
O’Mullan was speaking during a press evening at the Loughgiel clubhouse on Thursday night after watching his charges being put through their paces during a light training session.
The players are counting down the days to the big game which was achieved after hitman Liam Watson blasted his way to 16 points against Munster champions Na Piarsaigh in a thrilling semi-final last month.
As the players look to take on the biggest match of their lives, O’Mullan insists the magnitude of the game won’t stop them performing.
He said: “No, absolutely not. We’ve a panel of 29 there plus they’ve played in Croke Park before. We’ve Antrim captains out there, we’ve All-Stars out there and I can’t imagine the occasion getting to them. It might get to one or two people, which is fine - there might be nerves in the first few minutes, but it’s another game and we’ll just concentrate on getting our own gameplan and I can’t imagine, I’d be very surprised, if the occasion gets to anybody.
“There will be one or two of them the nerves will start to come in and they will be a wee bit tetchy and stuff like that, but it’s part of the game. It’s only natural and as long as we don’t waste too much energy with our nerves I don’t think we will be too bad.
“We’ve played in a lot of finals and we’ve played on the big stage before and the only difference this time is it’s the national final so hopefully they will be pretty controlled. We’ve worked on that but at the end of the day it’s an All-Ireland final so there’s going to be a wee bit of tension.”
Opponents Coolderry are the most succesful side in their county, but O’Mullan believes his side will stand up to the test.
He said: “They’ll be playing a northern team so they will be expected to win. But the door is open so if the players take their A game with them and perform the way we know they can perform and increase and step on from the last day’s performance, you know we’ve a massive chance.
“But I don’t think it’s the end of this team by any means. I think after this, regardless of what happens, we’ll hopefully push on for there’s enough talent to push on and push forward for a lot of the years to come and that would be the intention.”
Loughgiel proved their All-Ireland credentials by securing victory in extra-time of the semi-final after agonisingly being pegged back just before the final whistle.
O’Mullan feels that match and the players’ fatigue-defying stamina will stand his side in good stead.
He said: “We had trained for the 80 minutes just in case there was extra time and thankfully it maybe worked out that way and we got it. In extra-time we really pushed on and pulled away and our fitness told and we are preparing the same way for the final.
“We are super fit and that’s down to the good coaching and big effort from Jim (Nelson) and the players who have put in the work and I don’t think it will be our fitness that will beat us and certainly don’t think it will be our hurling ability, so we will just push on hopefully.
“The performance in the semi-final was good but there’s areas we can improve on and if we improve on in one or two of those areas we will be very hard to beat.”
While multi-talented sportsman Watson, who played Irish League football for Ballymena United and Donegal Celtic, has grabbed the headlines, O’Mullan says every player has contributed to the team’s success.
He said: “I set Liam a challenge of scoring more than he scored the last day, so I said if he does that we’ll win. But joking aside, he’s a great leader but we’ve got 15 leaders on the field and 14 off it. If our forwards can perform the way they performed the last day - we had five different forwards who scored the last day as well and our half-forward line scored nine points from play. People don’t maybe see that.
“If the forwards perform the way they did the last day, we’ve a great chance and I don’t see any reason why they won’t, they’re training hard, they’re working hard, it would be nice maybe if we could get a goal or two, but if somebody says to me it’s going to be 1-nil at the finish and we’re on top I’d settle for that.”
O’Mullan has a full squad to pick from but ultimately some players are going to be left disappointed.
He said: “We’ve 29 of a panel and everyone one of them is worthy of a place but you know it’s testament to the panel that we have that everyone is pushing hard and it’s a headache and it’s a healthy headache and I think it’s one every manager in the country would want.
“I know if things aren’t working out for somebody on the day, which is quite possible, I’ve got the back-up and I’ve got the ammunition on the bench who can come on and do a job.
“The way things have evolved in hurling, it is now a 20-man game and I’ve no doubt we’ll need to use the bench.”
And O’Mullan, whose father played in the ‘83 final for Loughgiel, reflected on what the game means to the club and supporters.
“It’s massive, from babies to OAPS, everywhere we go, everything that we do in the parish everybody wants a piece of it.
“It brings, it’s nearly contentment, it brings something.
“The players aren’t (content), be rest assured, I’m only talking about outside people here, our players are very focused and they know exactly what we’ve to do. Our job is to go the park and hurl and everything else that comes along with it that’s for the supporters.
“We appreciate everything they do, they are like a 16th man. We are well-renowned for the support that we have but the players are focused, their job is on the pitch and everybody else’s job is off it.”