"Dunloy had looked after me so well. I wanted to give some of my best years back to the club" - Shiels living for days like this 5 months ago

"Dunloy had looked after me so well. I wanted to give some of my best years back to the club" - Shiels living for days like this

Paul Shiels was only 13, back in 2004, when he watched Dunloy take on Birr in the All-Ireland club final.

Five years later, as an 18-year-old, he was midfield against them in the All-Ireland semi-final. It's no wonder he has great admiration for the Offaly kingpins, mentioning the Whelahans and Hanniffys as players he's always looked up to.

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Playing against them is one of his fondest memories in the game - Shiels also got to play against that great Portumna team in 2010 - but never did he think he'd have to wait 12 more years until he'd be back here again.

Birr and Portumna both had ten points to spare on the Antrim men, he's hopeful it will be a closer run thing against Galway champs St Thomas' this Sunday in Croke Park.

It's no surprise that St Thomas' are hot favourites, the Ulster champs are always the underdogs at this stage but even though he's aware of that, he's hoping to take inspiration from the likes of Loughgiel, Cushendall and Slaughtneil before them.

Loughgiel won the All-Ireland club in 2012 by beating St Thomas' and Coolderry. Cushendall, meanwhile, beat the Galway champs in 2016 while Dunloy themselves beat Mount Sion in 2003, and Portumna in 2004.

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"We're not silly. We hear everything that goes on.

"We're aware that we're the underdogs but the Ulster teams have competed well. Loughgiel have won an All-Ireland club recently, Cushendall made a final, and Slaughtneil have competed well. It's nice to be there. But we're going to give it everything."

Slaughtneil were the main reason Dunloy were so many years away. Twice the Derry men defeated them in Ulster and that's why it was such a relief, Shiels says, when they beat the Derry men in the Ulster final a couple of weeks ago.

"We were starting to feel the pressure from ourselves, and from people in Antrim too, so it was a huge relief.

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"Slaughtneil were a bit further down the road than us. We had to cross swords with them three times to get the better of them. I think it was a mixture of everything (that we've improved on) They sent us back to the drawing board three times. Hurling and physicality, everything, and they helped to drive our improvement."

Dunloy Cuchullains joint-captain Paul Shiels, with his mother Ann, after winning the Ulster final between Dunloy Cuchullains of Antrim and Slaughtneil. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Shiels retired from inter-county hurling five years ago, and the main reason he did that was to prolong his club career. The main reason was the prospect of days like this Sunday.

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"I retired from Antrim when I was 29.

"It was a tough decision at the time. But the inter-county season is so intense, it's a young man's game now.

"I had a few injury problems in the past. The body wasn't holding up to play both county and club. I was content after all because maybe if I did keep it going, I might have picked up more injuries. I felt every year I played county might shorten my club career.

"Dunloy had looked after me so well, so I wanted to give some of my best years back to the club, after everything they'd done for me."

"Your career goes by in a blink. There's a few of the boys playing this weekend who's fathers played in club finals and semi-finals. I'm sure it's a proud moment for them, but it's a proud moment for the whole club."

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Paul Shiels of Dunloy Cuchullains, Antrim, pictured ahead of the AIB All-Ireland GAA Hurling Senior Club Championship Semi-Final, which takes place this Sunday, December 18th at Croke Park at 1.30pm.