Antrim manager Conor Gillen happy with U21 timing
Leinster U21 hurling championship playoff round one: Antrim v Carlow (today, 2pm, Parnell Park)
THE PE department in St Louis' Grammar School, Ballymena escaped the school halls at 3.30pm yesterday afternoon and stepped into a big sporting weekend.
Head of the department is Gearoid Adams, who will be hoping (if that's the right word) that he can help Down overcome the Antrim side he was joint-manager of for the previous two years.
By the time their game is underway, Conor Gillen, a PE teacher in the school, will know the fate of his Antrim under-21 hurling team, who start their Leinster round-robin campaign proper in Parnell Park.
As he takes the call, he's standing baking on the sideline of a Year 8 game in Glenariff in 20-degree heat, offering a hand for the day to manager Colm Morgan.
It's not expected to be quite as warm in Parnell Park this afternoon, but there will be no shortage of perspiration on the grass as the pair begin their battle to make the quarter-finals.
To get there, Antrim will have to win today and overcome whoever emerges from Dublin's meeting with Laois, which takes place in O'Moore Park at the same time as this game.
That would take them into a quarter-final against Westmeath, but that is all a long way off for now.
Preparations have been hit by Joe Maskey's broken foot, ironically suffered against Carlow. He had been hurling a storm for the senior team all year.
His absence at the heart of the defence will be considerable, although in the likes of goalkeeper and captain Ryan Elliott, midfielder Gerard Walsh and forward James McNaughton, there is a core of senior experience.
As many as ten of the under-21 panel are involved with the seniors, which has a two-pronged effect. They had only 11 men at a training session last week, but that owes much to the involvement of so many in Antrim's Joe McDonagh Cup campaign.
“Numbers have been dead on,” says Gillen.
”Because of the U17 at county level, there are boys that would be in limbo. There are boys that would be well capable of being up, the likes of Ryan McGarry and Fergus McCambridge, they're on the U21 and starting tomorrow.
“This is prime exam time so you'd forgive a boy for missing training for an exam the next day.
“We have a panel of 24, that's all we can carry for U21, and the panel I have is a strong panel. The way the Joe McDonagh works, it's every week and it's intense for those boys that are on the under-21 as well.”
There is no ideal time for this competition. Earlier in the year it clashes with National League. Later in the year, as in the recent past, and it's running into club championships.
“Last year the Ulster U21 was in July and fed into August if you progressed. I found at that stage of the year, under-21s at their club are trying to push on to a senior team and trying to get them away at that time of the year, when August is the start of club championship season, was difficult.
“This year, there's a bit less pressure on them at their clubs and it's easier to get them out. Exam season is a factor but I think some of the boys are keen to get away from the studying for a night, to come to training or go and play a match.
“I'd definitely be in agreement with having it at this time of the year because it takes the pressure off players in terms of their club commitments.”
They will have to keep a tight eye on Chris Nolan, who impressed when coming off the bench in that infamous senior game a few weeks back, but an Antrim victory is very possible.