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Antrim hurlers heading to Portugal ahead of Joe McDonagh campaign

Antrim hurlers face Kerry on May 11 in their Joe McDonagh Cup opener Picture: Seamus Loughran.

THE Antrim senior hurlers are heading off to sunny Portugal for a four-day training camp as they prepare for next month’s Joe McDonagh Cup.

Through a players’ fund, the Antrim squad have managed to raise the money themselves via a range of various initiatives - backed by the county board - as they want to leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of Championship glory.

Previous Antrim senior squads in both football and hurling have had training weekends in Ireland but never in sunnier climes, while it became commonplace in the noughties for the better-off counties to send their elite teams abroad for Championship preparations. The hurlers will spend four days at the famous hotel resort called Brown’s in Vilamoura, which has been a training base for many elite teams, both in GAA and professional sport, for many years.

The fact that Antrim are investing in a training camp abroad is perhaps an indicator of the rising standards within the county. It is understood the hurlers did not want to compromise the club-only month of April and will not miss any games with their respective clubs, even though they fly to Portugal at the end of this month.

It is believed Antrim officials have spoken to Croke Park about the trip to outline the reasons for the squad’s departure before April has lapsed and to stress that no club fixtures will be affected by the hurlers' training camp plans.

The very nature of the GAA’s inter-county calendar is also problematic for team preparations, particularly those counties competing in the Joe McDonagh Cup. Antrim play their first McDonagh Cup match on the weekend of May 11 against Kerry in Dunloy, their base for the duration of the second-tier competition.

The Saffrons are away to Laois the following weekend before games against Offaly (away) and Westmeath (Dunloy) in early June in their quest for a place in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship proper. They will be hoping for a more productive campaign than last year’s, when they were forced to play a relegation play-off against Kildare.

Antrim fell short in their efforts to secure Division One hurling for next year earlier in the spring, losses to Kerry and Westmeath condemning them to at least one more year in Division 2A of the National Hurling League.  

Former Armagh boss Joe Kernan started the trend of staging pre-Championship training camps outside of Ireland with the Orchard footballers’ regular visits to La Manga in Spain. In an interview with The Irish News last year, Kernan said the training camps were integral to Armagh's success during the early-to-mid noughties.

“La Manga was unbelievable,” the Crossmaglen man said, “Two sessions per day for three or four days and one half-day off.”

Tony McEntee also acknowledged the value of the trips: “La Manga was brilliant; it was just a fabulous experience for us as a team – the amount of work we got in," the six-time Ulster Senior Football Championship winner said.

Armagh's All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Benny Tierney recalled: "We ate, slept and drank football the whole time we were there.

“Not a beer. We were treated like professional soccer players. It was hard, hard work. We adopted a very professional approach."

Antrim will be hoping a similar approach can pay off for themselves in the summer ahead.

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