Antrim hurlers must accept where they're at and strive for bigger things, says Conor McCann
Conor McCann is looking forward to a competitive summer of Joe McDonagh Cup hurling with Antrim, as he tells Anthony Gunning...
HAVING played in one of the biggest games in Antrim’s hurling history, one could forgive Conor McCann for being a little underwhelmed at the prospect at another campaign outside the Liam MacCarthy Cup proper.
However, this is far from the case for the Creggan man, who has confirmed that he and his Saffron team-mates are looking forward to another crack at the Joe McDonagh Cup after the new competition enjoyed a fine introduction in 2018.
McCann played for Antrim in the 2013 All-Ireland U21 final, when the Ulster champions came unstuck against an unstoppable Clare team that contained many names who also took senior honours that year and, while he would love to get back to challenging the big boys, he knows Antrim are where they are for a reason and must work their way back to the top table.
“It’s something to strive towards and it’s nice I can say I’ve played in some of the bigger games, but I think we are in the position we deserve to be now,” said the 26-year-old.
“The tiered Championships work well because you’re going out against teams you can beat or be beaten by. It’s not difficult to get yourself up to play teams like Westmeath and Laois because it’s so nip-and-tuck. I know the lads are looking forward to it, especially with our first game at home before a few tough enough games away. “
Antrim’s campaign begins at Dunloy next Saturday against Kerry, a team that defeated them earlier this year in the league and also in the final McDonagh Cup game last year that left the Saffrons facing a relegation play-off against Kildare that they would win.
Their sights were at the opposite end of the table midway through their 2018 campaign, however, as after impressive opening wins against Meath and Carlow, things were looking good with two home games left to play.
However, narrow defeats to Laois and Westmeath left them needing snookers on the final day and they couldn’t keep their end of the bargain regardless: “I think that, if you can find some form with it being week-on-week, you never know where it can go,” offered the team captain.
“Last year, we lost Joe Maskey and Michael Armstrong [to injury] against Carlow in one of our best performances, but then we just couldn’t get going again. That was maybe the last bit of hurling we played. You just have to take the injuries as they come, but hopefully keep them to a minimum.”
As mentioned, momentum is everything, but that also needs sprinkled with a little bit of luck in a competition – reduced from six to five teams this year – that looks ultra-competitive. Antrim have left no stone unturned in their preparations, travelling to the Algarve for a warm weather training camp at the end of April to try and find the extra couple of per cent that can make all the difference.
Following next week’s opener against the Kingdom, Antrim have successive away trips to the midlands to take on Laois and Offaly before returning home to face another team that dented their league promotion hopes this year, Westmeath.
“It’s going to be competitive, but that’s why I think everybody enjoys it,” McCann said of the competition that is in its sophomore year.
“Carlow went up and Offaly came down [in 2018], but that’s just like-for-like. Kerry have come up rightly and Westmeath are strong. It’s funny how the rankings work in that we’re probably one of the lowest in the group. Even though we would consider ourselves better than some of those teams, this is the place we’re in.”
On the face of it, Antrim appeared to have gone back a little this year given they failed to make the 2A League final this year, but there were mitigating circumstances. Their sizable and experienced Cushendall contingent was of course a miss during the first half of the league as Antrim struggled to find consistency, but their return ought to bolster the squad ahead of Championship, with the carrot of a crack at the MacCarthy Cup Qualifers also there for the finalists.
Picture by Séamus Loughran
There have also been a number of new faces added to Neal Peden’s squad this year, with several of Dunloy’s young guns like Keelan Molloy and Eoin O’Neill learning to adapt to life as an inter-county hurler, while Cushendun’s Conor McHugh has come in to offer support to some of the more experienced panel members. James McNaughton matured into something of a talisman throughout the league and the Loughgiel man will spearhead the Antrim attack.
The hope is the warmer days and drier ground will suit the new breed and McCann feels the panel have a good balance going into the campaign: “There is a freshness about the team this year, maybe more so than in previous years,” he agreed.
“The Dunloy boys are young, but they’re good players. There is a decent mix there and after the All-Ireland Club series was over, players came back and added to the mix. In the first few league games it was a very young team, but I think we’re in a good position now. I suppose we were disappointed that we didn’t get ourselves into a position where we could have got promoted, but the first few games with defeats to Kerry and Westmeath ended that.
“Everything has picked up since with the additional boys in, but it was good for the younger lads to get bred in during the league.”