Antrim have designs on Division One but won't be getting ahead of themselves - Neil McManus
National Hurling League
WHEN the Antrim hurlers line-out in Arklow on Sunday afternoon for their National League opener against Wicklow, Westmeath will be in Salthill taking on 2017 All-Ireland champions Galway.
At the same time, Carlow will be in Ennis preparing to play 2013 Liam MacCarthy winners Clare; the night before, Laois will be hosting reigning Leinster champions Wexford in Portlaoise.
Saffron Gaels could be forgiven for feeling envious at the sight of this fixture list, containing as it does regular rivals from recent Leinster Championship qualifiers and Joe McDonagh and Christy Ring campaigns who have progressed to the big time. Neil McManus, a veteran of many of these campaigns, agrees that the Division One groups Westmeath, Carlow and Laois are competing in this year is where Antrim need to be at, but neither is he getting ahead of himself.
Antrim have been in and out of NHL’s Division One, in its various manifestations, throughout the last 20 years and more, but missed out on promotion last year due to costly home defeats to Kerry and Westmeath. McManus is adamant that, if they want to get back to hurling’s top table, they first need to focus on where they are at.
“The aim throughout the National League for Antrim will be to gain promotion,” he said.
“The teams that Laois, Carlow and Westmeath will be coming up against this year, not only does that mean that those three teams are going to be playing competitive games against each other, and winnable games, they’re also going to be playing against teams of a higher level and those games are winnable too, we’ve seen it.
“Laois won the Joe McDonagh Cup last year and went on to beat Dublin the following week in an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final. They put on an incredible show against Tipperary – they were closer to Tipperary than Kilkenny were in the All-Ireland final. They’d a serious season and it just shows you, when things are right, the improvement that a team can make.”
Standing firmly in the way of Antrim making that leap themselves will be Offaly, who turned the Saffrons over in the Kehoe Cup final earlier this month. The Faithful county have shown tentative signs of improvement following last year’s annus horribilis, when they were relegated from both Division 1A and the Joe McDonagh Cup.
“It’s a very tough group in the sense that Offaly are probably favourites for promotion and then ourselves and Kerry are rated just behind, but there’s nothing given,” McManus added.
“We have Offaly and Kerry away, so they’re two very tough games, but we’ll look no further than Wicklow. We’re in Division 2A for a reason and until our performances bring us out of Division 2A that’s where we must concentrate our efforts.
“Offaly are a very well organised team. They actually have a lot of players back who weren’t there last year. They obviously have a new management set-up. You’ve Michael Fennelly, who was captain of Ballyhale Shamrocks last Sunday when they won the club All-Ireland and his right-hand man now is Johnny Kelly, who was managing Borris Ileigh, the team that Ballyhale were playing in the final, so it’s a funny combo but obviously a very, very strong management outfit. There’s clearly been a financial investment into Offaly hurling and they’re really starting to pick up a bit of momentum.”
Antrim have a fairly formidable manager themselves in the form of Allstar and All-Ireland winner Darren Gleeson and McManus is enjoying the Tipperary native’s first year at the helm to date.
“The thing about Darren Gleeson and his set-up is that Darren has been in the changing rooms of successful teams and the experience that that gives you on the big days is exactly what Antrim need to learn from,” the Cushendall man said.
“Darren has continued to put his stamp on things as we progress. All the players are very comfortable with him. As I said, it’s getting his experience out of him and into our panel is what we need to do.”