Slaughtneil looking to make commitment pay in Ulster camogie final

Only Loughniel stand in the way of yet another provincial crown for dominant group

Slaughtneil’s Grainne O’Kane and Siobhan Bradley celebrate at the final whistle after the All-Ireland senior camogie club championship final. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Slaughtneil’s Grainne O’Kane and Siobhan Bradley celebrate at the final whistle after the All-Ireland senior camogie club championship final. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

 

The last time there was an Ulster hurling club final, the victorious Slaughtneil captain Chrissy McKaigue had a few things he wanted to lead off with in his speech.

Top of the list was to acknowledge the club’s camogs. Earlier that day, they had battled their way past Loughgiel and recaptured their province, firmly on their way to defending three consecutive All-Ireland titles.

“Youse are the standard-bearers in this club!” he said of a remarkable Derry club that have hungrily gobbled up county and provincial honours in camogie, hurling and football.

Anyone that has worked with them will testify to that. Former manager Damian McEldowney insists that a typical week can involve three pitch and two gym sessions.

“They trained as hard if not harder than other senior football and hurling teams,” he states. “For me it’s harder for women because they are a lot of them working in healthcare, as nurses and so on. They organise their shifts around our training. If we were arranging a weekend away for a challenge game down south, they had to get their work covered.

“A few of them are students and would have been working in pubs and restaurants at the weekends. It was a big commitment for them to sort all of that out. Because if we said there was training or a match on, they were there.”

Two years on from that day, the present Slaughtneil camogie set up accurately reflects that statement as they prepare to play Loughgiel once again in the Ulster final this Sunday in Ballymena.

Manager on the day will be McKaigue’s first cousin, Siobhán Bradley. She was captain when they won the 2019 All-Ireland against St Martin’s as the March snow fell in Croke Park.

Married to Paul Bradley, manager of the club’s footballers who recently lost the county final, they have an 11-month-old daughter, Sadie.

Their plates are full. And then you learn that Siobhán is eight months pregnant with their second child, which you can imagine has made preparations fairly hectic for this game.

Most people wouldn’t add to their stresses in this way. But Slaughtneil people see the world in different hues. They aren’t interested in ‘easy.’

“You make the time because you are so passionate about it,” says Bradley. “I have said before when I was captaining the team, you want to do well and you want to be at the top of your game at the top level. Whatever that takes, you do.

“Certainly now that I am not playing and Paul is the manager of the football team, it’s hard going. We just make do. Camogie training was on alternate nights to football and there were a few babysitters in the mix!

“We made it work. We just wouldn’t be going about hunting out excuses for ourselves.”

That relentless pursuit is at the heart of a Slaughtneil team that would rival St Paul’s and Freshford of Kilkenny, Buffer’s Alley of Wexford, Galway’s Pearses, Milford and Glen Rovers of Cork as the greatest club side ever in camogie.

After winning three Bill and Agnes Carroll Cups, Slaughtneil were stung in last year’s decider when Sarsfields of Galway - whom they had beaten in two previous finals, finally got their revenge.

Slaughtneil’s Siobhan Bradley during the 2020 All-Ireland club championship senior camogie final. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Slaughtneil’s Siobhan Bradley during the 2020 All-Ireland club championship senior camogie final. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

That was just before Covid hit. It has not been easy for Slaughtneil. Their long-standing management team of McEldowney and Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley - the centre back for Antrim in the 1989 All-Ireland hurling final - stood back.

They were replaced by the respected coach Mickey McCullough who had managed Belfast’s O’Donovan Rossa to the All-Ireland camogie title in 2008 and has recently been coaching Mattie Kenny’s Dublin hurlers.

But lockdown was a frustration for him and through various management changes, they have emerged with what they had for the county final. Bradley took over, assisted by Mark Cassidy and Mark Lowry. Once they beat Ballinascreen in the decider, they added long-time Slaughtneil collaborator Mickey Glover to the coaching ticket.

This is actually the 2020 All-Ireland series. The Camogie Association had initially felt they were fine with calling off the provincial and All-Ireland series but after a series of protestations from prominent clubs, relented.

Finding a place for this game in the calendar has been torturous though. It was originally fixed for February 6th.

“We were left in a limbo and didn’t know what was going on because we heard rumblings it would still go ahead as the Camogie Association had a role of their own and the hurling and football had been scrapped with Covid,” Bradley explains.

“But certainly we knew that there was still going to be a 2020 season played. We were never going to shut it out.

“We might have been happy enough to draw a line under it to be honest but when the other teams in Ireland appealed it and it came back into play, now we are here. But we are delighted to be competing again in an Ulster final and these days don’t come around too often.”

There is a common trend with the best teams in camogie, such as those detailed earlier. They come like a comet and produce a burst of dominance.

Then life happens. Families happen.

Slaughtneil are no different. Former Offaly star Tina Bradley has a boy. As does Clare McGrath. Grainne O’Kane is now mother to a girl.

And in short time, Siobhán and Paul Bradley will welcome their second child.

“It’s nice for the girls too,” says full-forward Sinead Mellon. “They put a lot on hold for camogie, but now they have their own wee families and you can see the next generation of hurlers, footballers and camogiers all coming through now.”

But in the meantime, there is business to be taken care of this Sunday. Loughgiel are gunning for them. Nothing will be soft, nothing will be easy.

Just as Slaughtneil want.

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