New-look Antrim won't get anything easy against Kerry: Neal Peden
Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Antrim v Kerry (Today, Corrigan Park, 2pm)
AFTER a long drum roll, Anthony Daly was signed, sealed and delivered. The former Clare legend was meant to bring the star dust to Antrim's new management team.
No sooner had he agreed to give the Antrim hurlers a helping hand than he was gone.
Apparently Daly couldn't commit the time that was required.
So Antrim moved on.
But, judging by the early signals emanating from the Antrim camp, Darren Gleeson appears to be a better fit than Daly could ever have been.
The former Tipperary goalkeeper had been travelling up to Antrim with Liam Sheedy last season to do a bit of goalkeeper coaching with the squad.
Sheedy, a passionate supporter of Antrim hurling, felt Gleeson could be the final piece in Peden's managerial jigsaw. So the county board rolled the dice.
So far, all indicators have been positive.
The patrons who will arrive at Corrigan Park this afternoon to see Antrim open their National League account against Kerry will certainly hear Gleeson on the sideline.
In Gary O'Kane, Jim Close and Karl McKeegan, Peden has surrounded himself with good men.
There was a time Antrim would be nailed on to get out of Division Two. Not any more.
Kerry, Westmeath and perhaps Meath - Antrim's opening three fixtures - will fancy their chances of a crack at promotion alongside the Glensmen this year.
“The hurling fraternity knows that your Carlows, your Westmeaths and Kerrys have come on leaps and bounds,” said Peden, who was part of last year's management team.
“We're holding our own with them. There is a puck of a ball between all those sides. For Antrim, it's about trying to get a panel together and keeping them together for three or four years.
“It's going to be difficult to get out of the League with the debutants and new players we have but I'm looking for performances and the Kerry game will give us a real feel for where we're at.”
Kerry relegated Antrim to the lower division in Kevin Ryan's final year in charge (2015) and ended their chances of reaching last year's Joe McDonagh final by beating their hosts in Cushendall.
Kingdom boss Fintan O'Connor may have flooded his squad with a host of young players for today's arduous, but there will still be an experienced sprinkling who played and defeated Antrim last June.
Last week, Antrim let a five-point lead slip in the closing stages of their Kehoe Cup final loss to Westmeath, but Peden has seen plenty of positives ahead of today's Kerry clash.
“The Westmeath game was a really good, hard-hitting game. We were put under pressure and that's what we wanted. They used nine subs and, to me, that was the difference [in Westmeath getting a draw and winning on penalties].”
Peden has 11 players in his squad that have never tasted National League hurling before.
Young Conor McHugh was a key player in Cushendun's remarkable rise in 2018 and could be given his first taste of senior action alongside Phelim Duffin and Ronan Molloy.
With John ‘Rocky' Dillon, Stephen Rooney and Mattie Donnelly in Antrim's backline, the home side certainly have enough to keep the Kerry attack at bay.
Kevin Rice's celebrated “roughness and doggedness” will be a loss to the Antrim midfield as he sits out with a hamstring injury.
The heavy sod at Corrigan Park mightn't suit the fleet-footed Keelan Molloy, James McNaughton and Nigel Elliott but the feeling is Antrim could just have enough for their visitors, even without the experienced Cushendall contingent and St Enda's defender Joe Maskey.
“We've good hurlers, there is no question about that, they have all the ability,” added Peden.
“The potential is there in Antrim, it's just getting them to a level of strength and conditioning so that we can progress. It's going to take a while and people need to be patient.”