By Cian O’Connell
Ahead of another AIB Ulster Club SHC Final, Paddy Burke knows about the relevance of the game to Ruairí Óg, Cushendall.
A first Antrim title since 2018 mattered so deeply to Cushendall for plenty of different reasons. That it was achieved without John McKillop, who sadly passed away in the summer, ensured Cushendall players and supporters fondly remembered a cherished figure in their history.
“To win another Antrim championship was unbelievable, especially with the year that it was for the club,” Burke says.
“It meant so much to everyone. You see the emotion on the pitch, then when we got home to Cushendall, the homecoming and reception we got, it was like nothing I've ever seen before.
“So, it is something that will definitely stay with us for a while. Then, obviously, looking ahead still we have the Ulster Final on Sunday, another big day for the club. We are looking forward to it now.”
Slaughtneil, so durable and admirable on the Derry, provincial, and national stages throughout the past decade will be a significant test at Páirc Esler. Getting back to that arena was Cushendall’s objective. “The club has a very proud tradition winning Antrim championships,” Burke explains.
“We hadn't won one in a while, 2018 was the last one. So, every year you don't win, it is nearly seen within the club, what can be done? Where can we improve more?
“You are always gauged on whether you win the championship or not. That alone raises the standards within the club, every year you are looking to win a championship. Thankfully this year we were able to do it again.”
That emerging players are delivering for Cushendall is particularly encouraging according to Burke, who continues to impress at senior inter-county level for the Saffrons. “The obvious one is Joseph McLaughlin, he is still in school - he has been unbelievable, he has come straight into the team,” Burke remarks.
“You are never too sure if someone will come straight from minor into the senior team, but he has stepped straight in. He has been unbelievable for us really up front. We have another few around the panel, Joe McNaughton and Austin Burke, who are just out of minor last year. They are great players.
“After them you have the U15 from last year, who won the Féile. In the next couple of years we will get another three or four of them through.
“They are all brilliant players which is good too. You have people that didn't come straight from minor like a Ronan McAteer, Ruairí McCollum, two brilliant players now in the team, who are contributing a lot.
“You are sort of trying to bring one or two through each year to strengthen the panel, which will then help the team, obviously.”
Such an approach has served Antrim well under the shrewd stewardship of Darren Gleeson. The Portroe man has connected with the Antrim panel, crucially helping to attain a level of consistency. “Just from where we were in my first few years in the panel, we always knew we had decent enough players, but we just couldn't get the consistency in our performances,” Burke acknowledges.
“It is definitely something Darren has brought in, that we have managed so far, to get them levels of consistency that we are happy with. Obviously, it is then about how you get to the next level. That is something Darren drives the whole time.”
Antrim want to improve, to make further progress. “He is not just happy staying in the Liam MacCarthy for another year, he is always thinking how can we get to the next level and the next level,” Burke adds.
“That drives the standards of what the players expect of themselves and each other. He drives it in training, but also with his backroom team with the way everything is done.
“Not just the way we are training, it is the way the whole environment is being ran. It is all towards how can we get to the next level, to improve.
“That definitely helps with the consistency because you are never satisfied with 'oh, we are happy enough staying in the Liam MacCarthy or staying in Division One'.”
The fact that Antrim came close to taking scalps in the Leinster Championship offers hope too. “We did, that probably helps the supporters in Antrim buy into what the team is doing a bit more,” Burke responds.
“It is something Darren has been preaching to us for the last few years, about having the belief to be a top flight team because we have the players. When you get more and more encouraging performances, that definitely helps. The reason why you do all of the hard training, the lads are in a heavy block of pre-season.
“You question why you're doing it, but when you put in a performance, you can see that you're making progress and going in the right direction.
“That adds then to helping motivate yourself to go to training. So, the hard work isn't wasted, you actually have something in mind about where you are going.”
Burke is currently involved as a facilitator in the ‘Ahead of the Game’ campaign launched by Movember, the GAA, and the Gaelic Players Association. The Antrim star is eager to help underage players on and off the pitch.
“It is something when the opportunity came up, I jumped at it, really,” he says. “The thought of being able to make some sort of an impact and to help juveniles within my local community and the wider community.
“You will do the workshops in your own province so the clubs around Ulster will be helping juveniles. It is about giving them basically the tools to understand their own mental health, to strengthen their own resilience, to be able to deal with challenges on the sporting field and off it.
“The programme is unbelievable with all that it involves, you'd be a bit passionate about helping younger children be able to deal with things because you've been through it yourself.”
Various challenges exist, but Burke is adamant that the initiative will be helpful. “Even now, in this day and age, with social media it can be harder and harder for children,” he says. “They are seeing so many different things, to understand how they are feeling and to actually be able to cope with things.
“I've a couple of younger nephews, they are starting to get to the age where they are on social media and stuff. So, seeing first hand the impact that has and the impact it had on yourself when you were younger when you went through difficulties, just not having the tools to deal with it.
“Being an inter-county player you'd hope younger children in the community look up to you. If you're able to provide them with the tools to deal with their own mental health and understand it a bit more, that is a great thing.”