Courageous Cushendall eager to secure glory
By Cian O'Connell
"While we talk about golf and sailing, they're hobbies, hurling is real life," Neil McManus says about the Glens of Antrim.
As Ruairi Og Cushendall prepare for Saturday's AIB All Ireland Club SHC Semi-Final against St Thomas' McManus is completely aware of the potential and problems that exist.
Since 1981 Cushendall have accumulated 14 county titles and 11 Ulster crowns so the tradition is deep. Only one All Ireland appearance on St Patrick's Day has been made and altering that statistic is something Cushendall are seeking to achieve. "Cushendall won its first Antrim Championship in 1981," McManus explains.
"We've been in All-Ireland semi-finals since on a moderately regular basis. There's a massive hurling community in the Glens of Antrim. The percentage of people living in the Glens of Antrim and the percentage of people interested in hurling in the Glens of Antrim would be very strong. It's a great wee area and we're very passionate about our hurling."
There is excitement in the area presently as the maroon and white team prepares for this weekend's high stakes contest at the Donnycarney venue. "Totally," McManus admits. "Cushendall is a different place. Cushendall is a very picturesque, small, scenic village. We rely on tourism.
"The months of December, January and February can be quiet, cold, snowy. There's snow on the ground but there's a warm feeling about the place. It totally affects everybody. I was joking saying that there was no winter, but you nearly do feel like that.
"All the kids are dandering about the street with hurleys in their hands. There's anticipation about the village and everybody is just looking forward to next weekend, hugely. Everything will revolve around that."
Three years ago Cushendall defeated another Galway outfit, Sarsfields, at the penultimate stage and many lessons were learned according to McManus. "Aye, the first semi-final that I played in was 2007," McManus states.
"You learn things each time: what worked well for us, what do we not want to do this time. That was our first time reaching the final. So you would learn a wee bit about how to prepare for a final. We have a good grip on how to prepare for a semi-final, in fairness. We feel like we are well-prepared again this year. It will come down to the day."
One of Cushendall's main contributors in 2016, Shane McNaughton is no longer available due to an acting career taking him to Broadway. "I was sitting in the hotel the last night having a chat with him," McManus remarks.
"He's finished up now, he was doing a play during the week. His dad and ma were out watching him performing. Shane was performing for a long time before he went out to New York, but it's a different stage now.
"We'd love to have him. Top class hurler obviously, but he's doing something different. Something very brave. It's a bit out there and it's not the normal thing that you hear of a hurler transitioning into. But I've no doubt he'll be successful.
"He has a great way about him, you get a great buzz off him and he's a good lad. He'll do very, very well. It won't be the for the lack of trying if things don't work out."
For Cushendall, though, the enduring problem of getting sufficient challenge games remains an issue, but McManus and his colleagues are used to hitting the road. "You have to travel," McManus acknowledges. "That's absolutely nothing new to me. Everybody on our team is either currently playing for Antrim or has done in the past.
"One thing you will get used to as an Antrim hurler is travelling. We're well used to that. We've to travel to get to games and you need them. We've done plenty of travel. You need challenge games of a certain standard to prepare.
"There's an awful of work in the three and a half months towards an hour, so you have to get it right for the hurling side of things. We had some really good challenge games during the year, we're happy with the games we got."
What still matters, though, is the journey Cushendall are on. Whenever the opportunity arises McManus likes to help out coaching wise in the club recalling his own childhood days when totemic figures in the Antrim game were involved. "I’ve been in an odd school, I’ve been involved with our under-16s," McManus remarks.
"I’d lend a hand here and there, but I’m not doing anything major at the minute to be honest. It’s not something I’ve thought about to be honest, I’m very passionate about my sport, we grew up to total legends of the game in my own club - James and Sambo McNaughton, Conor McCambridge - heroes, to us, that’s the long and the short of it.
"I remember them coming off the field after county finals when I was 10 years of age and patting them on the back and just wondering - why is that man so sweaty?
"Those big cotton shirts that they had on, but those are the memories that you have and these lads are the role models that are in our club and they instilled that bit of passion in all of us.
"I certainly want to pass that onto the guys who are 19/20, we’ve a real good group of leaders there around that age and they want it as much as I do and they’re very, very dedicated so hopefully that will transcend on down. Who knows what the future will bring?"