Antrim hurlers take tentative first step into the future
FOR as long as I’ve worked in The Irish News Antrim’s senior hurling team has been stuck in second gear.
Over the last 18 years there was an occasional ripple of hope but more often the county hurlers found themselves running in sand.
It reached the point where the Antrim senior hurler would be ridiculed by his own for wasting his time with ‘that crowd’.
Despite strong performances at All-Ireland club level, the county team would take two steps forward and three steps back.
In the early 'Noughties', when an Ulster title guaranteed you an All-Ireland quarter-final place, Antrim's hurlers turned gallant defeat into an art form.
They pushed Tipperary all the way in an epic quarter-final encounter in 2002.
The following summer they were even closer to beating Wexford - but still no semi-final cigar.
Amid the dozen near-misses, Antrim always produced some fine hurlers.
On any given Sunday, Brian McFall, Jim Connolly, the Richmond brothers, Karl McKeegan, Mickey Kettle, Kieran Kelly, Gregory O’Kane, Johnny Campbell and Colm McGuckian would empty the tank.
These were probably the last meaningful days of the Ulster Championship.
The Ards Peninsula roared defiantly every summer while Derry, inspired by Geoffrey McGonagle and Ollie Collins, gate-crashed the party to win unlikely back-to-back provincial titles in 2000 and '01.
You live long enough, you’ll see most things.
Antrim always had an unerring ability to shoot themselves in the foot.
Speaking to the media in Casement Park a few days before they faced Cork in the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-final, Dinny Cahill described Cork full-forward Brian Corcoran as “finished” and called Timmy McCarthy a “dreadful” hurler.
Yes, this really did happen.
The following Sunday, Cork ripped Antrim to shreds 2-26 to 0-10. Corcoran hit 2-1 and Timmy McCarthy was excellent in Cork’s half-forward line.
I remember interviewing Ben O’Connor in the corridors of Croke Park afterwards.
“It just wasn’t the two boys [Corcoran and McCarthy],” said O’Connor, “every fella was out to prove that we weren’t having that said about any of our fellas.”
While Dinny will be remembered for that explosive pre-match interview, he did improve the Antrim hurlers in his two spells.
Jim ‘Jingo’ McKernan had a rattle at the senior job and although he had some good days on the sidelines Antrim’s star was beginning to dim.
Terence McNaughton and Dominic McKinley took up the baton.
Two things went wrong for the managerial duo: they introduced too many of the ‘06 minor team too soon while a Championship re-jig pitted them against the might of Galway.
For a time, Antrim officialdom were infatuated with appointing southern managers.
Cork man Jerry Wallace knew the terrain but his short-lived reign ended in controversy and embarrassment.
After Wallace resigned, the late Jim Nelson was appointed on an interim basis – but Wallace proceeded to turn up on the sidelines for a challenge game against Wexford.
Waterford native Kevin Ryan did valiant work with Carlow and was appointed.
I liked Ryan. He was straight-talking and tried to introduce a different style of hurling to Antrim.
But on the big days Antrim didn’t turn up.
Ryan admitted to his own tactical failings too.
In 2014, they were fancied to push Wexford all the way in a Leinster first round game in O’Moore Park. Within 12 minutes, Wexford had rippled Antrim’s net three times.
It was only after Wexford had scored three goals that Ryan decided to deploy Neal McAuley as a sweeper.
“From our own point of view we should have gone with a sweeper from the very start,” lamented Ryan. “We didn’t and it was kind of too late when we did.”
The high point of Ryan’s reign was guiding Antrim’s U21s to the All-Ireland final in 2013 after shocking Wexford in the semi-finals.
Two years later, the writing was on the wall for the Waterford man.
Speaking ahead of Antrim’s U21 All-Ireland semi-final with Wexford in 2015 he predicted his team would get “hammered”.
Forced to cancel a series of training sessions prior to the tie, Ryan said: “At this stage, I understand the way Antrim is and the way the clubs are. They’re playing knock-out championship matches the following week and there’s absolutely nothing in it for them, but it just doesn’t add up for me.
“You’re playing in an All-Ireland semi-final. We’re in for a massive hiding this weekend. I’ve no problem in saying that.”
Ryan could no longer get a tune out of the Antrim players and it resulted in a double relegation from League and Championship in his last season in charge.
PJ O’Mullan was the next to give the job a try. But his tenure lasted 141 days.
Just when Antrim hurling thought it had hit rock bottom it was resourceful enough to find a new low.
County boards have come and gone. Some performed better than others at trying to raise standards.
John McSparran’s leadership offered hope – but fighting the apathy among the clubs seemed insurmountable.
Croke Park continued to throw pennies at Antrim while ploughing millions into Dublin.
Every year, the Antrim minors were sent to the gallows on the All-Ireland stage.
And nothing more than a lack of fitness cost the seniors dearly in last season’s replayed Christy Ring final against Meath.
Throughout the last decade there was one steady shaft of light: the minor class of ’05 and ’06.
Neil McManus, Neal McAuley, Shane McNaughton, Aaron Graffin, Paul Shiels, Cormac Donnelly, CJ McGourty, Chrissy O’Connell, Barry McFall and Darren Hamill.
That squad of players should have at least reached an All-Ireland final.
“Whenever I was coming through the ranks at minor level I know that the players we had were as good as anything in Ireland,” said McManus earlier this week.
In 2017, some of those players are still raging against the dying light.
The Antrim management team of Terence McNaughton, Dominic McKinley, Gary O’Kane and Neal Peden have beaten the squad into shape.
McManus described Antrim's pre-season as one of the toughest he's ever done.
They’ve played All-Ireland finalists Kilkenny and Tipperary as part of their pre-season.
A few thousand fans turned up at Corrigan Park a fortnight ago to see them put up a gutsy show against All-Ireland champions Tipp.
Feeling rejuvenated, the Antrim hurlers face London at Corrigan Park on Sunday in their first National League game of the season.
It's the first ripple of hope the county has felt for some time.
And the nights are beginning to stretch again.