Gráinne Ní Chatháin and Siobhan Bradley celebrate a third All-Ireland success. (Pic: Inpho)
This weekend, Slaughtneil go in search of a fourth successive Ulster camogie title. It wasn’t always plain sailing at Emmet Park. Michael McMullan went to meet Gráinne Ní Chatháin to delve into the club’s change in fortunes.
The first thing that comes into your eye-line when you enter Slaughtneil’s committee room is a picture of Aoife Ní Chaiside hoisting the Bill and Agnes Carroll Cup aloft at Croke Park.
The club’s first All-Ireland also nestles among the roll of honour emblazoned on a sign at the front of the clubhouse. There for all to see. For the youth to aspire to.It wasn’t always glory days in the shadow of Carntogher. There were lean times.
While the club camogs go in search of a fourth Ulster title in succession this weekend, it is another step on the journey.
From being also rans, their progression transformed them into the undisputed Queens of the All-Ireland Club championship.For Gráinne Ní Chatháin, joint captain alongside Siobhan Bradley, their pathway was a gradual one.
The cornerstones were belief and work, helped by a blossoming group of players that began to knock louder on the door of destiny.
With less than two weeks to another championship showdown with Loughgiel, Ní Catháin is the essence of calmness.In the adjoining building the underage hurling management teams gather to take stock on the season and plant the seeds for 2020.
The camogie story is similar. No secrets, just organised graft.
“It was years of hard work,” Ní Chatháin offers, of how Slaughtneil’s camogie has morphed into national dominance.
Two words she uses to describe the girls she has battled with.
After living in the shadow of Eoghan Rua and going home empty-handed, it was time to change.
“We came together as a group and decided we needed to do something, that we had to put in the extra work we hadn’t been doing,” she recalls of the period ‘in and around’ their first county title in 2012.
“We thought something has to change, where we have to step it up a gear, to decide we are either taking it serious or not.”
A lack of belief was holding them back. Slowly but surely that changed. Under PJ O’Mullan, the current Loughgiel manager, Damien McEldowney and Dympna Dougan they finally got over the line.
“Winning that first Derry title and it still is one of the best titles we have won, personally. It was a great achievement,” the Emmet’s defender adds.
After a heavy defeat in Ulster at the hands of Antrim champions Rossa, they relinquished their hold on the Derry championship for the next two seasons.
“Getting beat is a learning curve, as much as winning. Every match you have things to learn and improve, to go back to the drawing board after.
“After those couple of defeats, we decided we’d rather be winning and we had the calibre of players. The management changed and were happy to put in the effort and that really started the winning (run).
“Damien (McEldowney), Mickey (Glover), Woody (Dominic McKinley), Shaun (McEldowney) and now Padraig (Ó Mianáin), with Thomas (Ó Caiside) also being on board….it was a great bunch of management in recent years.”
After living on the outskirts of success, looking in, Slaughtneil are now on the other side. They are now the envy and the hunted.
“With experience, learning and a bit of confidence in ourselves as a team, I would say that has developed and filtered in through everybody. Once you get that….it’s harder to back down.”
The new generation breaking into the team had their share of success at underage level. Gráinne Ní Chatháin played on a ‘strong’ side on her way up through the ranks - namechecking Jolene Bradley, Cara Cassidy, Mary Kelly, Siobhan Bradley, Eilís and Aoife Ní Chaiside among those she hurled with.
“We were getting to championship finals. We weren’t always winning but we were fortunate to be one of the strongest teams throughout underage. The younger girls (in current senior panel) had been on the winning end of things.”
After getting to the pinnacle, the appetite for success is a motivator. With other teams hot on their heels, the Slaughtneil mantra is about continued improvement. Both collectively and on an individual basis.
“Among ourselves, we were more competitive with one another because you know there are only 15 places and everybody wants to be making that team, which is great.
“The underage players that have come through are always stepping up. Every year, there are new players coming on board and they are always willing to put in the work…fighting for their places and that keeps everybody on their toes.”
One constant in Slaughtneil’s rise has been Loughgiel, the last team to beat them in the championship – a 1-14 to 1-9 Ulster Final defeat in 2015.
Ní Catháin terms them as “our old friends,” with both teams knowing each other inside out.
“They are a good bunch of girls and like ourselves, are hardworking and are good camogie players. It is a great thing for Ulster camogie with the two teams and you are guaranteed a good match between us.
“Loughgiel are a great team and they were the last team to beat us. There is never anything between us. They have lost players this year but so have we. It will be interesting to see how it goes.”
The defeat of four years ago is rarely talked about but sits close enough to the surface to always be remembered. Even in the face of all the recent success, that memory is always enough to sharpen the focus.
The epic games they have been involved in have helped shape their character. Clawing their way back from the jaws of defeat to force a replay, before Mary Kelly’s winning goal secured a first Ulster.The battle with Thomastown in Inniskeen, the resolve to win the All-Ireland after the final was twice called off due to snow and last year clinching the three-in-a-row.
“That mental strength to come back time and time again is good,” offers Ní Chatháin. “It is something we know we are good at. We keep going to the bitter end, no matter how difficult the task is and Loughgiel is another task ahead.”
It is not a matter of nerves.
“As a team, we are pretty composed and we would always focus on staying in control of our emotions. Getting nervous is always a good thing, it shows that you actually care.”
After years of nothing, following by unrivalled success, the battle for supremacy continues.
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