Antrim hurling's six of the best in 2010s
The highlight of Antrim’s hurling decade came early – in 2010 when they beat Dublin at Croke Park to reach their first All-Ireland quarter-final in seven years, and their only once since.
Just one of the Antrim panel from that Championship was still in the squad for the final season of the decade – and even if his name wasn’t at the top of this paragraph, there’d be no prizes for guessing who it was.
Neil McManus has outlasted his contemporaries from the 2006 and 2007 minor teams that produced Antrim’s best displays at that level in years, running both Limerick and Galway close in All-Ireland quarter-finals.
They formed the core of the Antrim side in 2010 and throughout the decade – four more of them feature on this page, with others such as Neal McAuley, Eddie McCloskey and Shane McNaughton well in contention to be considered one of Antrim’s top six of the past 10 years.
But there’s no doubt about McManus, one of Antrim’s greatest ever servants and, while the rest of the country may have taken a while to catch up, one of the best hurlers anywhere, year-in, year-out, for more than a decade.
Paddy McGill was part of the 2006 Christy Ring cup-winning squad under Jim McKernan but it was the following year, with Terence McNaughton and Dominic McKinley now senior managers, that the tap was turned on and the senior squad was flooded with talent from the minors sides they managed for the previous two seasons.
By the end of their first season, Arron Graffin, Neil McManus and Neal McAuley were also regulars, while Shane McNaughton, Barry McFall and Simon McCrory had all made appearances. However, only one of the new breed started every match and, injury permitting, Paul Shiels would start every Antrim match until he quit the inter-county game 10 years later.
Those injuries were severe, with hip operations – left and right – seeing him miss two full seasons, 2009 and 2016, but when he was fit there have been few better Ulster the hurlers over the past 15 years than the Dunloy man.
As the class of ’06/’07 moved into the county senior team, a few of them were given their bow in the forwards, no matter where they had played at underage level.
Neal McAuley and Cormac Donnelly, both every inch the defenders, made their senior debuts at full-forward. It makes some sense – it’s a little less exposed in the forwards and both those players were good enough to adapt.
Arron Graffin would hardly have struggled with double figures on his back but the Cushendall man was a corner-back if ever there was a corner-back. He ventured up a line on occasion for Antrim, and more often for his club as they won three county titles over the past decade, but Graffin was made to pick up an opposition danger man – and more often than not managed to shut them down.
Sticky and quick, with a good hand, the Cushendall man has suffered some horrific injury luck but was still one of Antrim’s most reliable servants throughout the decade.
Who’s the most talented hurler to play for Antrim in the past decade? ‘Best’ and ‘most talented’ don’t always correlate, with hard work accounting for a lot, though no-one on this page isn’t an immensely talented hurler. But talent isn’t everything.
It’s hard to argue that Liam Watson wasn’t the biggest talent to pull on a Saffron jersey over the past 10 years. But he only did it sporadically, appearing in six Championship games for Antrim during the decade, just one fewer than he managed for Warwickshire in the 2017 season.
While Watson’s absences almost always sprung from off-field issues, another contender for Antrim’s biggest talent of the decade saw his county appearances curtailed by injury to the point that he retired from all hurling at just 25 in 2014.
Cormac Donnelly was the youngest of that crop of minors, captaining Antrim at U18 level in 2008 after many of the rest of his contemporaries had moved up to the senior ranks.
He soon settled into the full-back jersey his father Terence wore in the 1989 All-Ireland final.
He was there as a 21-year-old when Antrim beat Dublin in 2010 but enjoyed just a few seasons before back and knee injuries combined to cut short a hugely promising career.
Antrim won every Ulster Championship contested during the decade, all eight of them, with seven different captains lifting the Liam Harvey Cup (Paul Shiels did it twice). But only one Antrim skipper lifted national honours – Simon McCrory.
Like so many of his contemporaries, the St John’s man came into senior set-up as a forward before settling into a more natural spot in defence, both in the corner or more often the wing, where he was best suited and provided a straight line of reliable continuity after the retirement of his fellow Belfast man Ciaran Herron.
McCrory retired at the end of last season and was Antrim’s skipper when they beat Carlow in the 2017 Division 2A final, their first national title since the 2006 Christy Ring Cup. He’s also the last captain from any county to lift the Liam Harvey Cup, after the Ulster Championship was suspended after the 2017 season.
Neil McManus is the only survivor of Antrim’s 2010 season, and there’s just one other man who played Championship hurling the following year still part of the Saffron squad.
Dinny Cahill gave Conor McCann his Championship debut against Laois in 2011 and Cahill’s fellow Tipp man Darren Gleeson made McCann his captain for his first season in charge of Antrim this year.
When the decade began it would have been impossible to imagine Kickham’s, Creggan providing the Antrim senior hurling captain. Despite an immensely rich hurling history – two of Antrim’s starters and another sub in the 1943 All-Ireland final were Kickham’s men – the Loughshore club were at that time plying their trade in Division 4B of the Antrim league. Since then they’ve moved up through the ranks in spectacular fashion, winning county and provincial junior and intermediate titles, as well as the All-Ireland junior crown in 2014.
McCann, who was on Antrim U21 team that reached the 2013 All-Ireland final, has been central to that, while also a decade-long regular for the county as a reliable score-getter and fine ball-winner in attack.