DISAPPOINTED yet proud were the overriding emotions for Dunloy captain Paul Shiels as he exited the Cuchullain's dressing room in the bowels of Croke Park on Sunday.

As his teammates packed their gear onto the bus and made their way around from the Cusack to the players' section in the Hogan Stand for food before hitting the road, 'Shorty' stopped to offer his thoughts on the absorbing battle that had just gone before.

Outsiders heading into the game, Dunloy were well within striking distance until the dying moments when they had to go for broke and Ballyhale availed of the gaps to tag on the insurance points that gave a rather distorted look to the scoreboard at the final whistle.

The Kilkenny champions were worthy winners on the day and although Dunloy got close, they just couldn't snap up the chances to strike for the front late when presented with a series of shots dropping short and eventually were made to pay.

Yet there could be no faulting their effort, proving they are right up there with the best in the country, pushing the Shamrocks as hard as anyone over the course of the season.

"That's a very disappointed dressing room - it shows how close we feel we were," said the Dunloy skipper.

"Coming down the stretch we were well in the game and that was the aim. We thought they were going to try to load up early and go for goals and they did, but I thought we did really well and were comfortable at the back.

"That middle third was a jungle and the more the game went on, it got tougher and tougher. They picked a few scores at the end there to pull away.

"That's high-level sport; the margins are small and we dropped a couple short when we had them under pressure. But I'm so proud of that bunch of players and the management team. We've been improving every year and are just disappointed, so it's back to the well again."

Shiels is challenged by TJ Reid

Shiels is challenged by TJ Reid

Anyone who has watched this Dunloy side over the past number of years knows just how good they can be and on Sunday, they did so much right.

But Ballyhale are the king of clubs for a reason and they did their homework to snuff out the Antrim champions' potent attack for the most part with their half-back line starring to prevent Dunloy to get a head of steam and run at goal that has proven such a headache for other teams.

The Cuchullains will let the dust settle and look to where they can find the extra couple of per cent to scale the mountain, but reaching this stage and performing like they did shows they aren't a million miles off.

"When you get beat in the last club game of the year, you must be doing something right," Shiels agreed.

"We had been trending in the right direction this year, but now it's back to porridge. We're at the end of January now, so we'll probably take six weeks off and get back on the wagon.

"Emotions are still a bit raw now, but once the dust settles in a few weeks' time we'll look at it and maybe reassess a bit better and analyse what we could have done.

"Every man in there gave everything they had and we just came up short, so the overriding emotions are of disappointment, but pride."

A major talking point on Sunday was the condition of the Croke Park surface.
Both managers referenced it in their post-game comments and the flow of the game was certainly disrupted with both sets of players struggling to execute some of the basic skills.

"The pitch was awful," Shiels confirmed.

"You could see when the ball was running away from players they had to get over the ball to scoop it into their hand. It was very difficult to lift the ball when it was running away from you.

"It was the same for both teams so just one of those things. It's probably still the best surface in the country at the minute, but it made it a bit scrappy with a lot of rucks and a wee bit fumble, but that's the nature of the beast in winter hurling."