Things look bright for Antrim after DCU win

 A MATTER OF CONOR: Antrim’s Conor McKinley gets away from Billy Hanlon of DCU during yesterday’s Walsh Cup clash at Jordanstown which the Saffrons won by nine points. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Brendan Crossan at Jordanstown

Bord na Mona Walsh Cup Group Two: Antrim 6-16 DCU 1-22

WINNING two out of three group games in the Walsh Cup, scoring 19 points in their defeat to Kilkenny and welcoming the return of some established names should allow the Antrim hurlers to approach next month’s National League campaign with a fair degree of confidence.

Beneath a low winter’s sun in icy temperatures at Jordanstown yesterday afternoon, Antrim breezed to a nine-point victory over a gutsy DCU side.

In preparation for their opening NHL Division 2A clash with London on February 12, the Saffrons will face Down in a challenge game at The Dub on Thursday night and will then host Tipperary at Corrigan Park next weekend.

DCU proved a reasonable work-out for the Antrim hurlers yesterday and allowed the four-man management team to run the rule over some of the younger members of the panel.

While Tiernan Coyle, John Dillon and an exciting cameo appearance from O’Donovan Rossa trickster Deaghlan Murphy caught the eye, it was some of the older players who helped secure this victory.

Neil McManus has returned to the fold after a year away travelling and mined four goals against the Dublin-based students.

None of them were things of beauty, but they all came at good times for Antrim.

Conor McCann is also back after missing last season, with the Creggan man getting his side’s first major of the day after 14 minutes.

But probably the best news of the year so far was Paul Shiels making his eagerly-awaited return to county colours after spending an entire season on the sidelines with injury.

The Dunloy attacker was thrust into action after 49 minutes and got on the score-sheet.

Conor Johnston of St John’s was also in the mood and tortured the DCU back-line in the second period, while Simon McCrory was rock-solid from start to finish in his resident right half-back position.

For joint-manager Dominic McKinley, one of the most pleasing aspects of the season so far has been the improved fitness levels of the squad.

When McKinley, Terence McNaughton, Gary O’Kane and Neal Peden took the reins midway through last season, it was an open secret that fitness fell well below the standard required for county level.

“We knew the first night we took the team,” said McKinley.

“We said: ‘These boys can’t do this. They’re not at the level they’re supposed to train at, so we tried to work through it as best we could.

“We thought we could get through it but it was proven right.

“When other counties are talking about our [poor] fitness it’s hurtful, it’s hurtful for us as people, let alone the players.”

He added: “When we sat down with the players at the start of this season the things they talked about were commitment, fitness, being honest with each other – and we’re trying to address them.

“But getting to that level of fitness is seriously difficult. It’s nearly a full-time thing.

“You’ve got to be thinking where you’re at every day. That’s the way things have gone. It’s a life choice. But their fitness and hurling are getting better every day.”

Antrim defeated bogey side Westmeath by nine points in their Walsh Cup opener but suffered a 26-point hammering at the hands of Kilkenny last week.

“People look at the Kilkenny match, but we still scored 19 points,” said McKinley.

“If we can score 19 points against Tipperary and get to the pace of it; once a team pulls you into the pace of a game, you do react.

“We know for a fact that our players did work extremely hard (against Kilkenny) because we have the GPS to show that. Maybe it didn’t look it but they did.

“We’re trying to get there and we’re looking at the fitness levels. It might take two or three years before these players are up to the fitness and conditioning they should be at, particularly for county level.”

Yesterday, McCann and McManus grabbed a goal apiece in the 14th and 15th minutes respectively, which allowed Antrim to establish some early authority over DCU, who showed stout resistance through Paul Kelly, Colin Currie and Tony French.

Currie raced clear of the otherwise impressive Stephen Rooney in the 28th minute to bag the visitors’ only major which cut Antrim’s lead to just one point at 2-6 to 1-8.

Conor Hearne’s fine 34th minute score enabled the Dubliners to lead 1-11 to 2-7 at the break – but once Conor Johnston rippled DCU’s net after the restart Antrim looked in control and were able to locate their opponents’ defensive weak spots.

The students couldn’t cope with McManus’s power on the edge of the square. He steamrolled through the DCU defence to grab his second three-pointer on 45 minutes and forced another over the line four minutes later to put Antrim 5-11 to 1-15 ahead.

And there was still time to notch his fourth goal after a fine off-load from Dillon in the 57th minute.

Young Deaghlan Murphy saw his clever lob over the DCU ’keeper come off the crossbar but he did split the visitors’ posts on two occasions in the closing stages.

“The good thing is we saw ‘Shorty’ on,” added McKinley.

“He got a good 20 minutes and played well but he’s still a long way away. The depth of the squad is good; we’d be hoping Matthew Donnelly and Neal McAuley 9both injured) will be back.

“We need all our players, particularly for the National League. London is our first game (Sunday, February 12 at Corrigan Park) and we can’t really look beyond that. We can’t look at other teams and say: ‘We can beat them’.

“We have to earn the right.”

C O’Connell; S Rooney, T Coyle, O McFadden; S McCrory (0-1), K McKeague, C McKinley (0-1); E Campbell (0-1), D McKernan; N McManus (4-2), C McCann (1-2), N McKenna; C Clarke (0-2, 0-1 free), J Dillon (0-1), C Johnston (1-2) Subs: R Diamond for K McKeague (46), P Shiels (0-1) for N McKenna (49), D Murphy (0-2) for C Clarke (50), P McGill (0-1) for J Dillon (57), M Connolly for D McKernan (57)
DCU: D Renehan; C Doran, D Byrne, M Daily; O Lanigan, B Hanlon, B Crowdle (0-1); T French (0-2, frees), P Kelly (0-4); A Murphy (0-1); C Hearne (0-2), C Dowling (0-4); H O’Connor (0-1), C Currie (1-6, 0-2 frees), J Mullaly (0-1) Subs: L Finnegan for B Crowdle (42), D Lynch for D Byrne (45), B King for J Mullaly (51), S Hickey for T Kelly (51)
Referee: K Brady (Louth)

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