Antrim hurlers ready for busy month in Joe McDonagh Cup
IT'S no wonder that managers have headaches, or at least suffer from eye strain. Antrim hurling mentor Dominic 'Woody' McKinley has to "fully focus" on their first game in the Joe McDonagh Cup this weekend, away to Meath, but also look at the bigger picture of the entire competition - and perhaps beyond it.
There's obviously a strong desire to get off to a winning start in the four-round format but, with more matches to come this month against Carlow, Westmeath, and Kerry, playing resources will have to be deployed judiciously.
Experienced defender Arron Graffin has been abroad but McKinley said that it's injury which is likely to enforce the absence of the Cushendall clubman from the opener in Pairc Tailteann: "Arron pulled a hamstring, so he's a major doubt. I don't think he'll be ready for this week.
"The way the matches run, if you risk anything you could basically miss the whole competition. We'll probably not go with him this weekend."
Otherwise he reports only "niggles" but laughs a little when asked if he's happy with the squad: "Well, you're never happy, but you have what you have and you've got to have belief. They have served us well and served the county well."
McKinley is conscious of the positives and the potential negatives of the new second tier format. The top two teams after the round robin will then enter into the All-Ireland qualifier series, which 'Woody' welcomes, but he also issues a warning:
"That's good – but you also have to watch the relegation as well. You have got to be at yourself but you can't throw all your eggs in one basket.
"This weekend is important, everyone is the same, we'd like to get off to a good start. But, and I know it's a cliché, you have to take it one game at time, re-group after the first one and see where you are."
Another aspect of concern is the problems of preparation, although those have been cited by Meath manager Nick Fitzgerald too.
"It's a great competition but there may be problems with the matches coming over five weeks and no club hurling," says McKinley.
"That's something they need to go back and look at because unless you have unity between clubs and county you're always going to have problems – and that's not just Antrim, it hasn't working out this April thing.
"The players have been training well enough but the disappointing thing is that we couldn't get matches because we weren't allowed to play friendlies at the weekend.
"We brought the U21s in on the Tuesday night to have 15 against 15 and that went well for us."
Still, he's understandably cautious about the task facing them away to the Royals in Navan this Saturday, pointing out: "Meath have turned us over in recent times, in the  Christy Ring [Cup Final] and in this year's Walsh Cup, although only by a point.
"It's small margins, that's what we're working on in training, trying to emphasise how important a foul, or a missed free, or a wrong decision can be. Like in the Laois match [the Division 1B relegation play-off], some of the decisions we made with the ball cost us dearly. We didn't make the right decisions and we paid the penalty."
Win and Antrim will be looking up; lose and they'll be looking down. Eyes crossed…