Antrim and Cushendall's Neil McManus and being the best you can be
Neil McManus has been a totemic presence for Cushendall and Antrim for over 15 years. On the eve of this year's All-Ireland hurling final, the Ruairi Og clubman talks to Brendan Crossan about his sporting life and how he doesn't regret a single second of devoting everything to his chosen sport...
‘OKAY, Neil, who’s going to win the All-Ireland hurling final?’
Neil McManus pushes his glass of iced water to one side and delivers what can only be described as a forensic examination of Kilkenny versus Tipperary.
“It is a toss of a coin. You look at it and on paper you’re thinking Tipperary because their forward line is so hot. But, so was Limerick’s and Kilkenny were able to shut that space down.
“I mean, how could you bet against Cody? That’s the thing. But then you’ve got Sheedy. I know Sheedy quite well; he’s an incredible motivator as well as knowing hurling inside out and back to front. He’s a genuine, bona fide hurling man…”
(Seconds earlier, we’re in the plush lounge of the Lansdowne Court Hotel that’s enjoying a steady stream of early evening trade. Click your fingers and it’s like there’s nobody else in the place only us. Talking hurling. This interview has lift-off…)
“I love the way Kilkenny play; the sheer honesty, hard work, grit and determination. Like, they always play with desire even when they weren’t going that well. They’re supposed to be in this transitional period… a transitional period and they’re in an All-Ireland final…
“I think Tipp’s forwards are just too good. And they have Callanan. Big Seamie can play it any way you want. If you want it rough, he can play it rough. I always remember that photograph against Limerick about three years ago and he takes a shoulder to the mouth and his teeth are flying out as he’s going through and he finishes it. He makes sure he puts the ball in the net before he worries about his teeth…”
(You nod, trying to compute everything.)
“What age is Cody? Got to be 70. And you see him absolutely bouncing up the sideline. Sheedy is the same. Did you see the clip of Sheedy [during the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford]? He was ready to go.
“Players feed off energy on the sidelines…”
HIS actual match prediction doesn’t really matter – for the record, he thinks Tipp will shade it – it’s the stuff in between.
The enthusiasm. The knowledge. The trained eye. The photographic recall.
And how he talks himself out of going for Tipperary before talking himself round again.
And how stitched leather and ash are absolutely essential to his being.
But here’s the thing: Neil McManus will never get to play in an All-Ireland Senior Hurling final – because he was born in the Glens of Antrim and not Kilkenny, or Cork, or Tipperary.
If McManus was a hurling blueblood he would have All-Ireland winners medals and a few Allstars on his mantle-piece.
The last time Antrim reached an All-Ireland final was 30 years ago.
Antrim currently reside on the cold fringes of inter-county hurling, far away from the Championship equator.
“Would you rather be born into a rich family?” asks his Cushendall club-mate and mentor Terence McNaughton.
“I don’t think Neil thinks that way. You are who you are. I’d say he gets frustrated with Antrim at times…
“McManus could hurl on the Kilkenny team on Sunday, without a doubt, and he could hurl on the Tipperary team and he wouldn’t look out of place. He's a better hurler than a lot of these fellas that will win an All-Ireland on Sunday.”
After dissecting tomorrow’s eagerly awaited hurling final, you ask does it hurt that he will never get to experience playing in an All-Ireland final in front of 82,000 people.
McManus breathes in and doesn’t rush his answer.
“It doesn’t hurt me, no. Maybe frustrating is the level it could get to. It can change nearly on a yearly basis with Antrim, the swings, the people involved, the players, the management.
“In 2010, we were in a quarter-final and it was realistic to think that we could beat Cork. Next year we were out in the Qualifiers and looking at relegation from the MacCarthy Cup…”
McManus adds: “Things aren’t allowed to vary so radically in other counties because the structures are too good. Look at Tipp: they were out of the Championship after the round robin series last summer. The defiance in Tipp wouldn’t allow that to happen again this year.”
AS far as minor teams go, Antrim’s class of 2005/06 were as good as it gets. McManus, Arron Graffin, Eddie McCloskey, Shane McNaughton, Neal McAuley, ‘Shorty’ Shiels, ‘Hippy’ Donnelly…
Terence McNaughton and Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley had quality in virtually every position.
“We’d no fear of anybody,” McManus recalls, who played centre half-back on the team.
“You’d ‘Hippy’ Donnelly behind you, Arron Graffin beside you, Paul ‘Shorty’ Shiels in front of you – you were surrounded by absolute quality.
“If you’d asked that squad: who is the best player on this team, five players would put their hands up, and they believed they were the best too.”
That minor team was unlucky to lose a 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final to Limerick in Parnell Park and even more unlucky a year later against Galway in Mullingar when the Tribe stole it with a two-point win.
Even in his minor days Joe Canning was seen as the Messiah of Galway hurling.
But the Portumna man’s significant threat was completely snuffed out by McManus that afternoon.
“That day down in Mullingar he never gave Joe Canning a puck,” McNaughton says.
“McManus loved the thought of marking Canning whereas there are other players that would shit themselves at the thought of it. But McManus saw it as a challenge. He didn’t go away from it. When you need McManus, more often than not he’s there. He's as good as anything Cushendall and Antrim ever produced."
HUGH McManus was born and bred in Belfast. Hailing from the Cliftonville Road area of the city, Hugh attended St Patrick’s Bearnageeha on the Antrim Road where he played Gaelic football and enjoyed cross-country running.
His grá for the GAA came from his many trips to Casement Park where the great Down footballers of the '60s often played and were still in their pomp.
Hugh moved to Cushendall in the early 70s where he met his wife Dorothy Hamill.
The Hamills owned the Corner House, one of the social hubs of the north Antrim village.
“In those days it would have been a wee café as well as a shop,” says Neil. “The only jukebox in the village was in there.”
Hugh and Dorothy married on September 12 1981 and returned from their honeymoon just in time to watch Ruairi Og Cushendall win their first-ever senior championship edging out Ballycastle after a replay.
Hugh and Dorothy had three children: John, Neil and Maria.
The entire McManus clan have always been steeped in the Ruairi Ogs club.
Following in the footsteps of Charlie Hamill - Dorothy’s brother and local farmer - Hugh threw himself into community life in the village, holding every office there is to hold in a rural hurling club.
Maria, now living in Dublin, was a fine Gaelic footballer and camogie player.
Although John was a couple of years older than Neil, they both played a lot of underage hurling together as Neil could hold his own in the older age group.
The pair also played a bit of Gaelic football for Glenravel and dabbled in soccer for a junior team in nearby Carnlough.
But John’s real passion turned out to be music (he’s the lead singer in ‘Runabay’) and Neil’s was always hurling.
“As a child Neil was always very determined,” says his father Hugh. “He would have been very much interested in nature and local history. If something interested him he would go and give it 100 per cent – and he is the same today.
“He wanted knowledge and he would follow that.”
In P6, he won a poetry competition that made it into the prestigious Ballymena Group Libraries Poet of the Month.
His teacher at the time whispered to Hugh that he thought Neil had plagiarised the poem from another book.
But the work was all his.
Entitled ‘Red Bay’, it’s an ode to the famous Red Bay Castle ruins on the coast road, first built in the 13th century.
You quote the first stanza of his poem and his face cracks a bashful smile.
“There are ruins of a castle above the red arch when you’re driving through Cushendall to Glenariff and it’s just somewhere I went. It’s just a class place. You’ve heard of Sorley ‘Boy’ MacDonnell, one of the chieftains, who rebuilt the castle…”
McManus half grew up in his own house and the other half in Terence McNaughton’s.
Shane, Terence’s eldest son, and Neil were joined at hip and never seen without a hurl and a ball around the village.
“Shane and me spent an enormous amount of time together,” McManus says.
“One of my earliest memories was travelling to Burt with ‘Sambo’ and going over the Foyle Bridge for the first time. ‘Sambo’ was working for Guinness at the time and he had a wee Guinness van. Shane and me were about seven at the time and we had the buckle around the pair of us in the passenger seat, just for him to take a training session in Burt...”
Laughing at his own fanaticism, McManus adds: “‘Sambo’ has an infectious passion for hurling… Sometimes in the evening there, I’d be doing something in the house and I’d find my mind wondering what I would do under a dropping ball. I can’t help it...
“I think ‘Sambo’ is very similar. He would ring you and say: ‘Here, what do you think of this drill?’
“Growing up you’re influenced by the people around you and he was certainly one of them.”
What really fired McManus’s passion for hurling were the countless trips up to Casement Park, with his father Hugh at the wheel, Charlie Hamill and his brother John.
“My father and Charlie would sit wherever in the ground and John and me would hit the ball about down near the front. I just loved Casement, loved it. Obviously you were a child but it looked massive. The stewards would let you onto the field until my Da would tell us it was time to go.”
The day was never complete without burger and chips – “Don’t tell your mother, boys,” Hugh would warn his sons - before they’d head back up the Glens already plotting their next trip to Casement.
“Those trips obviously left an impression on Neil that I probably didn’t appreciate at the time,” his father says.
McMANUS has countless good memories of Casement but one stands out above all others.
“I remember after the 1999 county final [Cushendall beat Dunloy] and saying ‘well done’ to Ciaran McCambridge of Cushendall. I patted him on the back and he’d the big heavy cloth jersey and it was soaking with sweat. That stuck in my mind.”
McCambridge’s sweat-drenched jersey illustrated to the young McManus what it actually takes to compete at the top level.
Five years later the-then 16-year-old got his first taste of senior club championship action against Loughgiel Shamrocks. Although the day ended in defeat for the Ruairi Ogs, McManus soon became the totem of successive senior sides and was earmarked as a future Antrim captain.
Hugh knew his son was good but it was only when he was tripping into his teenage years he realised how good.
“There was a blitz down in Cork, where you’d maybe play three games in the one day. But this particular day Neil was absolutely brilliant. He would have been 13 or 14. And I'm watching him, thinking: ‘God, Neil, I can’t believe how good you are.’”
By his own admission McManus wasn’t the most technically gifted hurler – not even in his own club.
“My skill level was good – it wasn’t excellent,” he acknowledges. “It wasn’t like Shane McNaughton’s.”
“I don’t mean this as an insult,” Terence McNaughton says, “but I don’t think Neil is a natural hurler. He’s not a ‘Cloote’ [Oclan McFetridge] but I think he’s made himself better than his ability allows him, if that makes sense.
“What he’s got is desire in abundance – he’s got honesty, character, commitment – he has the foundation skills.
“But I’m not surprised how well he’s done. I knew he was going to be good because he wanted it badly enough and because he loves the game.”
It depends on how you look at talent, and how things like work-rate, desire, attitude can manipulate the process.
“My assets are work-rate, desire, I’m a ball winner by trade. That’s what I do well…
“You need all the segments to make yourself a good player, but so many are controllable by you: how fit you are, how strong you are, your own attitude before you go onto the field – they are things you can control, which is fantastic. You could be three-quarters of the way there before you step onto the field.
“You’re always learning. I mean, Conor McCambridge played wing-forward or full-forward for 15 years or more. Even though he was the best forward I’ve seen in club hurling, it was his tackling that was so good.
“You look at Arron Graffin as a hurler. Arron would be very similar to myself, a bit of a made hurler, if you like. The way he progressed simply through hard work and the player that he has been for the last 10 years… That is the template to make yourself a good hurler because Graffin was able to keep them all quiet.”
IT’S 2019 and there’s an unmistakable autumnal feel in the air. With each passing day the light fades.
Now 31 and with more hurling road behind him than in front of him, Neil McManus is the last man standing of the class of ‘05/06.
A few years back, he took the guts of a year out to see a bit of the world with Dunloy woman Aileen Martin – now his wife. They visited Thailand, Bangkok, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The undoubted highlight was the spectacular views and the people of the Sapa Mountains, north Vietnam.
Within an hour of returning home, he was on the field training with his Ruairi Og team-mates.
His best friend Shane McNaughton, now pursuing an acting career in New York, says: “Anyone who knows anything about hurling can speak about how good Neil is.
“But if you look at his life, he is successful in every aspect of it.
“Whether he’s having a pint with a local farmer in the village or the suits in Croke Park, he treats everyone the same.
“There are few things I’m more grateful for than having a friend like Neil who challenges and inspires me to be better.
“I wouldn’t have had the courage to go to New York if it wasn’t for him, I mean that wholeheartedly.”
When he thinks of Shane trying to make it in the Big Apple, does he ever feel he’s invested too much of his life into hurling, McManus replies: “That’s a hugely brave thing for Shane to do. And I hope so much that he gets that break. But that wasn’t my passion…
“I remember one of my friends saying to me, if Antrim aren’t going to be competing for All-Irelands, go and travel and enjoy yourself. I’ve done a very small bit of travelling. But I’ve enjoyed hurling so much. It’s been a total pleasure.
“Not a second of time spent in the gym or on the pitch or in Casement Park on a Friday afternoon after work practising frees for an hour, not a bit of it was wasted.
“It is the best time I’ve ever spent in my life. That’s the truth. How lucky are you to find your absolute passion and get to follow it for as long?
“As a minor I fully believed we’d be playing in big All-Ireland games” he adds.
“I totally believed it. We were competing with every team in the country at minor level. Looking back, I’ve loads of regrets, obviously, but spending so much time playing hurling is not one of them.”