All roads lead to Dublin on Saturday next as Antrim and Ulster champions Loughgiel Shamrocks take on Offaly and Leinster champions Coolderry in the AIB All Ireland Senior Club Hurling final at Croke Park, writes John McIlwaine.
To say the buzz around the parish has reached fever pitch would be an understatement as this hurling mad area prepares for the journey south to cheer on their heroes.
Red and white flags and bunting hang from every pole, tree and gable wall, and sign after sign around the parish tells the players to “Believe”.
Every child in both primary schools, St Anne’s Corkey and St Patrick’s Loughgiel, are dressed in red and practically every one of them could name you the team and the positions they will play in Saturday’s showdown (ko 2pm).
Songs have been written and recorded and fundraising events organised.
The place is buzzing. These are special days!
The big question is can the team deliver the goods? Everyone connected with the squad feels they can, confident in their own ability but not arrogant in any way.
They know the task they face is a stiff one, yet they know it is not insurmountable.
Saturday’s opponents Coolderry were most impressive in their semi-final win over Galway champions Gort. Like Loughgiel (against Na Pairsaigh) the Offaly men went into the game as outsiders and upset the odds with a very confident performance.
However they are not one of the powerhouse names in club hurling like Portumna of Galway or Ballyhale Shamrocks of Kilkenny, packed with household names.
That may not make the task appear so daunting, but it may not make it any easier.
For a large section of Saturday’s team this journey started a long way back. The road has been hard in places and there were times when many of them would have questioned whether it was all worthwhile after suffering six county final defeats in a row, starting in 2003.
A semi-final defeat in 2009 may have broken the sequence, though it did not make the journey any easier, but with a dogged determination that would make Robert the Bruce look like a quitter they soldiered on and were finally rewarded in 2010 when they at last claimed the county title amidst scenes of joyous celebration.
They added the Ulster title with ease, but came up short in the club’s first All Ireland semi-final for twenty-one years when they were beaten by Kilkenny champions O’Loughgiel Gaels.
Last August the journey started again and this time around they have cleared all the hurdles so far. It took extra time to get through the All Ireland semi-final against Limerick champions Na Pairsaigh, but in doing so they produced their best display on this nine-year journey. The final hurdle is the big one, the Beechers Brook of club hurling.
To clear that final hurdle it will take a display at least as good as the one they produced in the semi-final, it will take patience and discipline and a bit of luck into the bargain, but they can do it.
Down the years when Antrim teams, both club and county, have lost out in big games we have heard it said that they hadn’t the tradition behind them.
However, this time around tradition is on the side of the Antrim champions as they are the team with the All Ireland title to their name.
They did it before and upset the odds and there is no reason why they can’t do it again.
* Loughgiel Shamrocks All-Ireland Hurling Club Final
See pages 48-50