One for all ethos keeps driving Slaughtneil forward
By John Harrington
Many different factors have made Slaughtneil the phenomenally successful GAA club they have become in recent years.
But one attribute that always jumps out whenever you watch their footballers, hurlers, or camogs play is their incredible unity of purpose and team spirit.
They back one another to the hilt and share a ferocious will to win that most teams they play simply cannot match.
This band of brothers and sisters mentality isn’t something you can artificially create.
According to Conor McAllister, a key player for both their football and hurling teams, it’s something that has developed naturally because their bonds of friendship run so deep.
“It's weird in the way that there are maybe 19, 20 boys the same age as me and we all run around together,” said McAllister.
“If you see one of us, you see a dozen of us, we all run around together. We all went to school together and that's all we know, going up to the club every night.
“Even underage, if we didn't have training, we'd be up at the club kicking about or something. It's all we know.
“We'd be at each other's houses every night of the week. At the weekend, we socialise together. We never leave each other.
“It shows on the pitch, I suppose. When it's getting tough, we back each other up and show that bit of toughness and togetherness.”
When you have a large group of friends who all share a single-minded focus on being the best sportspeople they can possibly be, then you’re onto something special.
Nature as well as nurture has played a big role in the Slaughtneil success story too.
It’s a small rural community where the GAA club provides the primary social outlet, so everyone there contributes to and feels a very real part of the success story they’ve created.
“It sits between two towns, Maghera and Swatragh, it's only a small townland really but everyone there is part of the club,” said McAllister. “Every house would nearly have someone playing.
“I was talking to the boys there from Dublin, Limerick and Galway (Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell, Na Piarsaigh’s David Dempsey, and Liam Mellows captain David Collins), they'd lose a lot of boys to other sports like soccer and rugby but we don't really have that problem, I suppose.
“Everyone is very focused on it. Even all the volunteers around the club. The hurlers and the camógs as well, everyone is just driven.
“There's not that much else [apart from the club]. There's no shops or anything like that.
“There's the club and a primary school, a bunscoil and also a cultural centre for the Irish language. There's small post office as well.
“The club's obviously a big part of the community and everyone's involved in it.”
Winning both the Ulster football and hurling championships presents an obvious challenge for Slaughtneil.
The teams they will face in the All-Ireland series will be focused totally on one code only, whereas Slaughtneil have to juggle both hurling and football training.
“Obviously, it's quite difficult in the build-up to All-Ireland semi-finals, trying to get enough hurling,” admitted McAllister.
“Obviously, hurling is about having a hurley in your hand and getting stick work and your touch. Even trying to get you recovery and your strength and conditioning, but our managers work very well together, they meet up every week and sort out a schedule and agree to it.
“They set aside days for recovery and strength and conditioning. I suppose it is hard but it's a good problem to have.”
Those dual commitments are one of the reasons why Slaughtneil are such big underdogs with the bookies going into Saturday’s AIB All-Ireland Club Hurling semi-final against 2016 champions Na Piarsaigh.
The Limerick club would be wise not to take the challenge lightly though, because you’re always guaranteed a battle when you face Slaugtneil’s band of brothers.
“Aye, I'm looking for to it,” said McAllister. “It's a big challenge for us, we're looking to set on a bit, our second Ulster title in a row now.
“We're trying to take the next step but we're under no illusions how big a challenge it is. Teams like Cuala, Na Piarsaigh and Liam Mellows - I know it's their first county championship in a long time - but it's a big step up from the standard in Ulster.
“We have a very young hurling team and in the next few years, we'd definitely be looking to push for the All-Ireland.
“Obviously, Na Piarsaigh, they've been there and done that, they were All-Ireland champions there a couple of years ago.
“Everyone's probably looking for this Cuala versus Na Piarsaigh final but we'll do our best to upset that.”