It's up to us to bring Antrim back to the big time admits experienced ace Neil McManus
BY the time Neil McManus eventually hangs up his hurl, he wants Antrim to be back where he found them at the start of his inter-county career – going toe-to-toe with the big boys on the League and Championship stage.
The Cushendall ace made his debut in a National League game against Tipperary in the spring of 2007. In the same campaign the Saffrons also took on the might of Galway, Limerick, Dublin and reigning All-Ireland champions Kilkenny.
Back among that kind of company is where Antrim need to be if they are to properly progress, McManus feels.
In terms of Championship, the second tier Joe McDonagh Cup offers a potential back door opportunity into the Liam MacCarthy Cup, and the 30-year-old feels Antrim now have the players and, crucially, the panel to push on.
“I want to leave Antrim back in Division One, back competing with the top counties – in Championship and League, whether that means being back in a Leinster Championship round-robin if that’s the way it’s going to be,” said McManus.
“I learnt so much during my time at that level and I would love this group of players to get that same experience because there’s nothing teaches you like playing against the best – and we’re capable of it.
“I wouldn’t wish for anybody to go into it and not enjoy it, but Antrim have the players. I’ve played on some exceptionally strong Antrim teams but, panel-wise, we’re as strong now as we have been.
“There’s six or seven options off the bench and that hasn’t always been the case; it’s very seldom been the case in my career with Antrim to be honest.”
Neal Peden’s men made a flying start to their McDonagh Cup campaign against Kerry in Dunloy last Saturday, and tomorrow Antrim come up against a side they know well in Eddie Brennan’s Laois.
There was little to choose between the counties in their two meetings last year, though on both occasions it was the O’Moore men who came out on the right side of the result.
And that losing sequence is something McManus would love to change when they travel to Portlaoise.
He said: “All the games with Laois over the last probably 13 or 14 years have been close. In my whole career there has been very little between Antrim and Laois, and it’s no different now.
“It’s small margins. We’re just looking for very small things, one per cent in your performance on the day, one per cent in your preparation… they’re the things you’re looking for to get you over the line and we’re not that far away.”
A narrow loss to Laois in Dunloy was the Saffrons’ first defeat in the 2018 Joe McDonagh Cup, and it was a result they never really recovered from.
This year, though, Antrim came into the competition off the back of a warm weather training camp in Portugal – and McManus insists the benefits are clear to see.
“It was fantastic,” he said.
“You’re getting as much training done in a day as you are in a week at home – three sessions a day, and we’d four days of that.
“It was a great experience, and great to spend so much time together, mixing with lads on the panel you were maybe only saying hello to or having a quick conversation with every now and again.
“With 30 lads, you don’t get speaking to every one of them every night. But out there you were speaking to everybody nearly every day.
“You’re doing everything you would be doing at home only you get to do more of it, as well as working on more specific things. You’re able to go into a bit more detail which can only but benefit us.”
GAA 'NEEDS TO BE STRONGER' ON McDONAGH CUP COVERAGE
NEIL McManus believes the GAA “need to be stronger in their position” when it comes to coverage of the Joe McDonagh Cup.
GAA president John Horan suggested last week that RTE weren’t interested in showing the second-tier hurling competition, claiming the national broadcaster was “driven by numbers”.
But McManus, whose Antrim side take on Laois tomorrow, believes it is up to the association to push the envelope further.
He said: “The GAA have to be stronger in their position and say ‘here’s what we’re giving you the rights to, here’s what you’re buying from us but we want you to include this in the package and show these three games’, or whatever it may be.
“There’s an appetite for that kind of coverage. We need to promote hurling within Antrim, we need to get as much exposure as possible onto every media platform going to give ourselves the best chance of increasing participation to the levels it could be if we’re serious about making the GAA a success in Belfast.”