Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship Final
Dunloy Cuchullains v O’Donovan Rossa (Corrigan Park, Sunday, 3.45pm, Live on TG4)
HE was just 12 the last time Rossa won an Antrim Senior Hurling Championship, but the memories remain vivid for Stephen Beatty.

The celebrations in 2004 went long into the night the next day at the old Rossa House on the Falls Road as title number 15 had been secured.

Looking on as the players who had landed the Volunteer Cup accepted the back slaps and congratulations, a young hurler could have been forgiven for thinking such days would become a regular occurrence. However, that has not been the case and 17 years on, the trophy has not been back in the city with the modern day North Antrim superpowers of Dunloy, Loughgiel and Cushendall sharing the title between them since.

On Sunday, Beatty - now 29 - will captain Rossa into battle against a Dunloy team that is bidding to join his club on 15 county titles despite winning their first after a replay in 1990 against, you guessed it, the Shaws Road outfit.

Indeed, since that maiden success, the Cuchullains won two subsequent finals between the pair in 1995 and 1997, so for those in blue and gold, the hope is that they can redress the balance and enjoy another glory day in the club’s history.

“I remember being in Rossa House with the celebrations and Jim Connolly lifting the trophy,” said Beatty, whose dual abilities were exemplified when kicking home Rossa’s third goal in the semi-final against Cushendall.

“Those are memories that I will always have so even thinking about Sunday gives me goosebumps. If I am the one who lifts that trophy, it will be something that sticks with me for the rest of my life. Just to captain the team into this final is a seriously proud moment for me and my family.”

Beatty celebrates kicking home Rossa’s third goal in the semi-final win over Cushendall

Beatty celebrates kicking home Rossa’s third goal in the semi-final win over Cushendall

It was another proud moment for the Beatty clan that included patriarch Davy - who passed away last year -  back in 2015 when Stephen found the net in Croke Park to help the Jeremiahs to the All-Ireland Intermediate title with victory over Kilburn Gaels.

That success was due to be a watershed moment but the return to senior has not been without its challenges.

There was a county semi-final appearance in 2016, but then things began to unravel with some bad days before the recent resurgence that saw them back in the last four in 2020, coming up just one point short against Dunloy before pushing on further this term.

“You would think we are on a six-year programme, but it’s just the way it happened,” reflected the Rossa captain who has represented Antrim at senior in both codes in the past.

“From 2004, we had disappeared from competing in the Senior Championship. 2015 was a good stepping stone at Intermediate because we knew we had to drop down.

“I keep saying it, but it’s just the hard work paying off with all the buy-in we are getting. I think if you look back at that (2015) team, there is something like 13 still on the panel.

“We have been on the big stage at Intermediate level, but we know how big a step-up this is and it’s what we’ve been pushing for since 2015. Thankfully the hard work has paid off that we have finally got there.”

For few moments, it seemed as though Rossa would not be here as Cushendall’s late rally in the semi-final saw them turn a five-point deficit into a three-point lead with the game in stoppage time.

Those in blue and gold could have been forgiven for thinking ‘here we go again’ as victory slipped through the fingers, but perhaps the pain of those previous losses offered some clarity in the final moments as Rossa mustered one last surge, finding the scores to do their own Houdini impression and stamp their ticket into the decider.

“I remember being heartbroken last year when Dunloy scored that (winning) point and heartbroken against when Paddy McGill scored that goal (for Cushendall in the semi-final) as I was thinking ‘this is happening to us again’.

“But at the same time, I turned my back and ran as I thought ‘this isn’t us’ and had a feeling we were going to sneak it. That shows the maturity of the panel as in the past we may have thought ‘this isn’t for us’ but now we are stepping up and fingers crossed we can get it done on Sunday.”

The build-up to a final is always a little different, yet extra special. There is an added hype and excitement with the day itself containing a little more pomp and ceremony that players are used to.

The semi-final saw an unleashing of joy, but given many on the Rossa panel also line out for the club’s footballers, there was little time to bask in the win as attention turned to the big ball last weekend.

Perhaps that has helped prevent players from dwelling on the final for too long as this week, while enjoyable, it all about business.

Still, the occasion can’t be ignored and why should it? It’s been a long time since Rossa have had an Antrim SHC final to look forward to, so the coming days should be about embracing it all before getting to the weekend and putting the game faces on.

Beatty in action during the 2015 All-Ireland Intermediate Club final against Kilburn Gaels in Croke Park  

Beatty in action during the 2015 All-Ireland Intermediate Club final against Kilburn Gaels in Croke Park  

“I didn’t really get to enjoy it after we beat Cushendall because we had the football (against Moneyglass) but now that’s over I can start two enjoy then build-up,” said Beatty.

“I’ve played with Rossa all my life, so to be able to captain the club in an inter-county final is something I’m proud of and couldn’t have dreamt of.

“It’s easy saying to boys not to be getting involved in the occasion, but you need to enjoy the occasion too as they don’t come around that often.

“You can enjoy the build-up, but come Sunday it’s just another game: throw the ball in and that’s it. Everything goes out the window so we’ll enjoy our training and see where we’re at on Sunday.”

Nobody needs any reminding as to the size of task that faces them this weekend with Dunloy entering the game as hot favourites to complete a three-peat of county titles.

The North Antrim outfit is laced with quality and household names, littered with inter-county experience and seem to get better with each passing year.

While it is an uphill battle, it’s not an insurmountable one and last year’s semi-final between the pair that was only settled six minutes into time added on will give Beatty and his team-mates belief that they have a chance of upsetting the odds should they produce a performance.

That will take the Shaws Road men to be switched on from first minute to last and while there is the greatest of respect, nor is there any fear.

“I respect Dunloy so much,” Beatty continued.

“They aren’t going for three-in-row by fluke, they are a serious hurling outfit and I actually enjoy watching them, but come Sunday, all respect goes out the window.

“We are there and we’re going to try to put it up to them and hopefully it goes our way.”
Should it go their way, it would spark wild celebrations and this time it would be Beatty and his colleagues inspiring the next generation.