Time for an Antrim manager to tackle Antrim hurling
IF THE late Jim Nelson believed it was possible, then the rest of us had no reason to doubt it.
In his latter years, Jim was the wise old owl everyone at Loughgiel Shamrocks deferred to. He was always in the background at his adopted club, but nobody underestimated the decisive role he played as the Shamrocks won an All-Ireland title, four Antrim titles and four Ulster titles between 2010 and '13.
It was after one of Loughgiel's many successes during that period when Jim stood on the Casement Park pitch and told reporters the Loughgiel template could be replicated at county level. All the Antrim county board needed to do was copy Loughgiel's structures and anything is possible. Jim spoke with startling clarity.
Spool forward to the present and Antrim couldn’t be further away from the All-Ireland stage. Antrim have suffered many disappointments over the years, but 2015 was particularly bad. Relegated in the league. Relegated in the Championship. And currently managerless.
The county board has tasked former Antrim hurling great Ciarán Barr with finding a new manager. Rest assured, the O’Donovan Rossa clubman will carry out these duties with typical diligence. Barr is based in Dublin. So far, the name that’s been doing the rounds is Michael Walsh, the former Kilkenny goalkeeper.
Walsh spent several seasons with Kilkenny’s U21s between 2008 and '11 and worked with the Carlow and Westmeath hurlers. Walsh’s pedigree is undisputed.
Closer to home, PJ O'Mullan Jr has expressed an interest in the job. O'Mullan stepped down from the Loughgiel Shamrocks post last Sunday after they narrowly lost to Cushendall. He'd been in the role for six years. O'Mullan is an All-Ireland winning manager. Antrim are looking for a new manager. O'Mullan is a free agent and wants the job. It seems straightforward. Give O'Mullan a crack at the job.
What's there to think about? Of course, the county board can't be criticised for approaching Ciarán Barr to see what's available down south. Due diligence is a good thing. Still, it seems a bit unnecessary to cast the net southwards again, especially when there are excellent local candidates more than capable of guiding Antrim hurling out of the doldrums.
O’Mullan mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea and some people might doubt his ability to unite the county given the fierce rivalry Loughgiel have shared with the likes of Cushendall in recent years, but since when was fierce club rivalry a bad thing in the GAA?
Any prevailing tensions between the county representatives of the two clubs would be ironed out in a heartbeat. One bonding weekend, a couple of training sessions and some old-fashioned man-management would remedy these things.
Gregory O’Kane's name was also doing the rounds at last Sunday's county championship semi-final between Loughgiel and Cushendall. O'Kane mightn’t have won the things that PJ O’Mullan has won as a manager – but his potential candidacy is equally intriguing as O'Mullan's.
The Dunloy native enjoyed a distinguished career with Antrim and was a valued member of a couple of county backroom teams. He also managed Ulster's Railway Cup team and improved standards at UUJ. He's just completed a second season with his club Dunloy, with their seniors not far away from winning a county championship again.
Crucially, O’Mullan and O’Kane know every nook and cranny of the club scene, which puts them in an advantageous position. The Antrim county board has opted to go for a southern-based manager in recent times, with mixed success.
Tipperary native Dinny Cahill enjoyed two spells as Antrim’s senior hurling manager. Dinny was one of the best coaches Antrim had. The players raved about his coaching drills. Next up was a Cork man. Jerry Wallace. An unmitigated disaster. The less said, the better.
The county board cast their net to Waterford and got Kevin Ryan. I liked Ryan. He was a straight talker. He was honest, sometimes to a fault, but he put his heart and soul into the job for three years.
In his first two years, Ryan made tentative progress. In his third year, the wheels came off. Ryan tried to implement a running style of hurling that was unsuited to the players he had at his disposal. The margin for error in this particular style was significant, and Antrim were punished on numerous occasions.
The day Antrim lost to Kerry at Parnell Park in an NHL relegation play-off was the beginning of the end for the Waterford man. Antrim limped into the Leinster round robin series and finished no-where, losing to Carlow and Westmeath.
With the best will in the world, Antrim don’t need to keep looking south for inspiration. Speaking with a southern accent shouldn’t be a precondition for managing Antrim’s hurlers. A north Antrim accent is as good as the next man’s.
The point here is, Antrim has the coaching talent on its doorstep and there is an overwhelming desire in the county to see an Antrim man in charge of Antrim hurling. To appoint locally would also see the cash-strapped Antrim county board save itself a small fortune. Surely those burdensome mileage expenses could be put to better use in the county.
Antrim's hurling manager driving up and down the M1 should be a thing of the past. The novelty has well and truly worn off. At this stage, appointing an 'outsider' is completely unnecessary.
It's time Antrim changed direction and started appreciating its own coaching talent.