Antrim hurler Neil McManus - a glowing example of inspirational leadership
THE great thing about Corrigan Park is just how close you are to the field of play.
Last Sunday, we had the perfect view of Neil McManus’s off-the-ball tussle with Danny Sutcliffe in the opening minutes.
It happened within an arm’s length of the two dug-outs.
With Antrim having been awarded a free, Sutcliffe was slow to retreat from the ball.
McManus made sure he moved back by throwing a shoulder into the Dublin hurler’s chest.
You could literally hear the shudder of the collision at pitch-side.
Sutcliffe barged back into McManus and could easily have been cited for trying to drill his hurl into the back of Antrim’s number 11.
McManus wasn’t for backing down. He squared up to Sutcliffe again, looked him up and down, and treated his recent arrival in west Belfast with complete and utter contempt.
It’s exactly what Antrim needed to do.
It was as if to say: You’ll not get anything easy here today.
Although we have no scientific way of measuring its value, McManus’s act of controlled aggression was probably worth a couple of points to Antrim.
From the first whistle to the last, McManus was inspirational for Antrim.
You would have to travel far and wide to see a better individual display this year.
Every Antrim and Dublin fan and neutral who had the good fortune to be in Corrigan Park last weekend will testify to the Cushendall man’s courage, selflessness and hurling mastery.
It was on a different scale.
If a father was trying to explain to his son the virtues of leadership on a hurling field he could simply point to McManus.
He converted 16 of Antrim’s 22 points on the day – 11 frees, two ‘65s and three from play.
Everyone in the ground was convinced his raking 80-metre free deep into stoppage-time would give Antrim a share of the spoils.
But in the final play of the game Donal Burke won it for the Dubs.
It was an agonising finale for the home side in what was an enthralling battle in Division 1B.
Seven days earlier, Antrim faced the daunting challenge of trying to live with All-Ireland champions Galway in Salthill.
The Glensmen led for most of the second half only to run out of gas in the final throes of the game and went down by three points.
McManus was Antrim's best player that day too.
"If we had five or six Neil McManus' we'd be competing for an All-Ireland," said joint manager Terence McNaughton.
In 2005/06, McNaughton and Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley had nurtured a fine county minor team.
It was the last time Antrim were competitive on the All-Ireland minor stage.
Given the hugely encouraging start to 2018, it’s no surprise to find these two men are involved in the current managerial set-up.
Since their playing days, McNaughton and McKinley have always been two hurling revolutionaries.
For this stint with the senior hurlers they have left no stone unturned. Gary O’Kane, Neal Peden and Liam Sheedy are the other constituent parts of the managerial team that hope to keep Antrim in Division 1B next season.
In hurling terms, running All-Ireland champions Galway to within three points and losing to Pat Gilroy’s imposing Dublin side by the narrowest of margins in their two opening fixtures is one of the stories of the Allianz Leagues so far.
Imagine what the outcome of both those games might have been if Antrim had all their best assets out on the field.
Simon McCrory has been Antrim’s most consistent defender over the last two seasons but is unable to commit this year. Nobody can blame Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels for stepping away from the inter-county scene.
The 30-year-old Dunloy ace has battled back from two major hip operations and probably wants to give a few good years over to his club.
Judging by some of the brilliant hurling they played last season, there are easily four or five other Cuchullain’s men that would improve the current Antrim panel by 20 per cent.
In Ballycastle, there’s a young lad called Saul McCaughan who is one of the most naturally gifted hurlers to emerge in the county.
My first glimpse of the wiry forward was two years ago in an NHL game when he gave a jaw-dropping display against Kildare, scoring 2-1. He’s since dropped off the radar.
Every player has their valid reasons for stepping away from panels – it happens in every county up and down the country – whether it’s family, work or on-going injuries that need rest.
Still, coming away from Corrigan last Sunday you couldn’t help but lament that a couple of hard hits from McCrory, a bit of magic from Dunloy’s young guns, an encore from ‘Shorty’ and bit of devil-may-care skill from McCaughan would have got Antrim over the line against both Galway and Dublin.
At elite level, games are often won by moments of quality.
That said, there are host of new recruits that have already become better hurlers for the experiences of the last two Sundays.
Gerard Walsh, Joe Maskey, Donal McKinley, David Kearney, Nigel Elliott, James McNaughton and Daniel McCloskey are all making headway.
The genuine pity is that the Antrim hurlers were giving the Dubs their fill of it several pucks away from Casement Park.
And that’s the bigger narrative here. The rebuild of the old west Belfast ground has endured one delay after another while costs continue to climb.
Ulster Council secretary Brian McAvoy said: “The Casement Park stadium must and will be a positive catalyst for the Gaels of Ulster but particularly a ‘shot in the arm’ for Belfast as Ireland’s second city.”
Antrim’s county board is moving in the right direction and ticking every box they're asked to tick.
It’s crucial their shop window teams are performing well on the national stage.
Lenny Harbinson has started brightly with the senior footballers and the hurlers have surprised everyone by the way in which they’ve applied themselves in Division 1B.
The host county needs inspiring leaders to give the Casement Park project a gentle push.
They couldn't ask for any better than Neil McManus.