Antrim beginning to believe again
By Cian O’Connell
Neil McManus quietly acknowledges that something is stirring in Antrim GAA. Potential is evident in both codes, on and off the field of play.
Sunday’s trip to Croke Park for the Allianz Hurling League Division 2A Final against Kerry is the latest encouraging sign.
That Darren Gleeson’s promising panel chalked up four wins and a draw in five group games suggests the Saffrons are motoring well.
McManus, the prolific Antrim forward, has been around long enough to know when the hope and expectation is genuine.
Attaining Division One status remains the mission. “Of course,” McManus replies. “Ourselves, Offaly, and Kerry probably all were eyeing up promotion. The taste of it, briefly, a few years ago was great for the younger players.
“It is a great environment to be playing your hurling, especially with the age profile of our team being so young. That is the aim to get back up because there is no doubt you learn more at that level.
“You progress better. You could see that with Westmeath, how closely they ran Cork and obviously then in the relegation play/off where they were comfortably better.”
The way Gleeson has sought to build a panel is a source of optimism for McManus, who believes that Antrim are moving in the right direction again.
“When you give a group of young lads a taste of it they do want to perform at the top level,” McManus admits. “If we can get up there it is something they'd grow from, they would develop hugely being in that environment.
“We would want to stay there and these lads are ambitious. They aren't scared of anything; they just want to go out to hurl. We are very sure that Kerry have the same mindset, but I know from when I started playing with Antrim we were in Division One.
“It is a great level to be at because you are playing against the best hurlers in the country. You have no easy games and your individual battles are tough every week you go out.”
Those are precisely the types of encounters McManus and Antrim crave. “Every week turns into like an All Ireland final for a team like Antrim,” McManus stresses.
“It would be fantastic to be a part of that and I would love to see these lads experience that next year. Martin Burke my own clubmate is the only player older than me on the panel at the moment. There is a drop down then of about five years to the nearest in age.
“It is a very young panel. These lads are mad keen, they are incredibly enthusiastic. It would be a huge benefit to Antrim hurling if these guys were learning their trade in Division One.”
Gleeson’s approach is earning admirers. When appointing a high profile outside trainer it is vital a suitable person can be identified. Antrim’s willingness to graft and seek improvement is important too according to McManus.
“The manager puts the plan in place,” the Cushendall clubman states. “We had sporadic interaction with Liam (Sheedy), he was only involved a small amount. It was great to get the benefit of his insight, he was really there more to advise the management team on the day, on how they could improve the set-up.
“He had more of a director type role. Unfortunately it didn't come to pass with Anthony Daly, he didn't become involved. There was talk about it, but it didn't come off unfortunately.
“Darren is an All Ireland winner, he has been in those high pressure games with high pressure situations. He has been part of a really top level environment and that is what he is trying to impart on to ourselves. We are really glad to have that level of experience, to try to draw on.”
A feel good factor exists in Antrim GAA. Following a lengthy process the Casement Park redevelopment appears to be edging closer to restarting, while the Gaelfast initiative is another project being praised.
“I think one of the main factors and reasons for Antrim going well is how the GAA community around Antrim has got together,” McManus remarks.
“Even the likes of the Saffron Business Forum and Club Aontroma, there is huge work going on trying to facilitate a higher level of professionalism within both the football and hurling set-ups.
“When you have that support it is fantastic. It makes players want to be there, the players are really looking forward to Sunday. They are really looking forward to the next training session.
“Obviously with the match being in Croke Park on Sunday people like to go there to see the stadium. It is great for them to go seeing Antrim playing.”
Being relevant and in the hunt for silverware matters deeply too. The Joe McDonagh Cup has been highly competitive with Antrim set to make a bid for that competition.
Exposing the emerging players to a high stakes match at GAA headquarters will be hugely beneficial. “Of course, with all due respect to teams we got past quite easily in the league we didn't learn anything about ourselves in those situations,” McManus says.
“It is when there is something on the line, when you are playing against players of the same ability, and sometimes better, that how you can nullify them and how you perform against that top level opposition.
“That is what days like Sunday are all about. Hurling when it matters against a really high level of opposition.
“At the start of the league Kerry and Offaly were the favourites to go up, we were in third place so we will have to play exceptionally well to get the result. We are looking forward to it and it is a 50-50 game for the both of us.”
Even last Sunday at Bord Na Mona O’Connor Park with Antrim trailing late on, two goals were plundered by the Saffrons. A point was taken, but one was also made – there is a real sense of purpose about Antrim again.
“We have put in a tremendous amount of work and we haven't always played brilliantly,” McManus reflects. “Last Sunday would be a case in point on that. Our performance was nowhere near it would need to be on this Sunday, but we showed a huge amount of desire.
“We worked until the very end and I know there was a lot of injury time, but we kept going. That is very important, we kept going and we were very lucky to get something out of that game.”
Fortune frequently favours the brave.