Key pair return to Antrim fold ahead of crunch relegation play-off clash with Laois
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B relegation play-off: Antrim v Laois (tomorrow, 2pm, Dunloy)
EXPERIENCED heads Ciaran Clarke and Simon McCrory are back in the Antrim fold as the Saffrons gear up for tomorrow’s do-or-die relegation play-off with Laois.
To be able to name both among the subs for the Dunloy clash is a welcome boost for the Antrim management, even if neither has played any part throughout the National League.
Last year’s captain McCrory has been unavailable thus far, while Clarke suffered a leg injury during January’s Conor McGurk Cup and has been forced to watch on from the sidelines.
The Ballycastle man has been Antrim’s main scoring threat in recent seasons, and could yet have a big say in helping secure the county’s Division 1B status.
“He hasn’t played competitive hurling but he’s been our top scorer the last two or three years,” said Dominic McKinley, part of the Antrim management team.
“Could he play a part in keeping us in Division 1B? He maybe could. We can’t afford to be without players like him.”
Arron Graffin was forced off at half-time in last week’s win over Offaly, but is hopeful of recovering from the dead leg sustained in time for tomorrow’s game.
In terms of having any bearing on the League, that victory in Birr counted for little. But, as McKinley points out, it was well deserved points on the board for players who have put in some spirited performances, most notably against All-Ireland champions Galway and Dublin.
“Things went reasonably well last week and I think that was important for the players, for all the work they’ve put in, that they got something out of this League,” added McKinley.
“Setting aside the Limerick match, the players have done wonderfully well. They’re fighting a serious battle to get up maybe three levels in the space of a couple of years, so we’re delighted with the attitude of the players.”
There remains a lingering disappointment, however, about returning from Laois empty-handed four weeks ago, a defeat which ended any hopes of avoiding ending up in a relegation play-off.
McKinley admits aspects of the Saffrons’ preparation weren’t right for the Saturday evening game at O’Moore Park, while the management weren’t happy that 15 of Laois’s 27 points came from frees
He said: “What happened in Laois stays in Laois, for them and us both.
“We travelled on the day, a six or seven hour journey, and it didn’t work out for us. I’m not using that as an excuse, but we probably shouldn’t have done it.
“There was a lot of frees in it too - that’s something we have to address. Some of the frees we gave away and some we felt were a bit pernickety.
“In our heads, that loss was a bit of a gunk to us. They’re coming up to Dunloy now so we have home advantage, but it’ll only be worth something if we perform.
“This is like a Championship match for us.”
And, having performed better than many expected, McKinley feels they would only no benefit from another year mixing it in Division 1B.
“The bottom line is that you’re up along with the big guns. The All-Ireland champions Galway, Limerick are one of the teams who could win the All-Ireland.
“Growing up, you want to be among this. This is where we were years ago and people want to get back there.
“It’s a long process and we’re not there yet, but we would love to stay there even another year because this League connects more with the people, and with the youngsters too.”
Antrim: R Elliott; A Graffin, J Dillon, R McCambridge; J Maskey, C McKinley, P Burke; E Campbell, G Walsh; C Johnston, N McManus, M Armstrong; D McKinley, C McCann, N Elliott
Laois: E Rowland; J Phelan, L Bergin, L Cleere; J Ryan, M Whelan, P Lawlor; P Purcell, B Conroy; W Dunphy, C Dwyer, PJ Scully; R King, N Foyle, S Bergin