Antrim hurlers intent in keeping the bar high against big hitters Galway at Corrigan Park

Antrim V Dublin hurling at Corrigan Park
Antrim V Dublin hurling Antrim's Aodhan O Brien and Joseph McLaughlin try stopping Dublin's Conor Burke at Corrigan Park PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim v Galway (Sunday, Corrigan Park, 1pm)

IN the early throes of Darren Gleeson’s managerial reign, the Antrim hurlers were playing the likes of Mayo and Wicklow.

In the depths of the COVID pandemic – October 2022 - Antrim beat Kerry down in Tullamore to gain promotion to Division One. They’ve stayed in the National League’s top-flight and haven’t looked back.

Sometimes, though, it’s good to look back because you can gain a deeper appreciation of how far you’ve come.

Given the ruthless nature of elite hurling, Antrim Gaels of a certain vintage know not to take the visit of the game’s big hitters to Belfast for granted.

Clare, Wexford, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary have rolled through the gates of Corrigan Park over the last few seasons and more often than not Antrim have been competitive.

Tomorrow, the Galway hurlers – boasting a win over Westmeath and suffering defeat to Tipperary in Division 1B to date – are the next big hitter to sample the unique atmosphere of Corrigan.

Given their deficit position, success for Antrim hurling can never be measured in silverware – but more in how the players acquit themselves on a consistent basis at the top table and their ability in staying there.

It shows how high the level of expectation has been raised in the county when Eoghan Campbell stressed the importance of winning a place in next year’s new-look Division 1A rather than taking comfort from the fact that there is no relegation this season.

“The League matters to us because you want to be playing top level hurling,” Campbell said.

“That’s why you play county hurling to face the likes of Kilkenny and Limerick. Next year you want to bring Limerick up to Corrigan which would be fantastic.”

With so many automatic choices missing from Antrim’s ranks, either through choice or injury, their performance against Dublin a fortnight ago came as a pleasant surprise to the Corrigan Park faithful, especially coming off the back of a hammering at the hands of Limerick down in Thurles a week earlier.

Only for a goalkeeping error by home goalkeeper Tiernan Smyth right at the death, Antrim would have banked the points against the Dubs.

But the performance itself will have given them a lot of confidence facing into the Tribesmen.

Rian McMullan, Joseph McLaughlin, Fred McCurry, Rory McCloskey and Tiernan Smyth, all of whom started against Dublin, don’t reach double figures combined in senior appearances.

Dunloy quartet Ryan Elliott, Seaan Elliott, Nigel Elliott and Keelan Molloy are taking a break from the county set-up, while Gleeson is also without Caolan and Daniel McKernan, Gerard Walsh, Ciaran Clarke, James McNaughton, Paul Boyle, Michael Bradley and Seamus McAuley.

Defenders Stephen Rooney and Conor Boyd picked up knocks against the Dubs and are ruled out against Galway.

Antrim V Dublin hurling at Corrigan Park
Antrim V Dublin hurling Antrim's Eoghan Campbell, Conor Boyd, Niall McKenna track Dublin's Paddy Smyth. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

On the plus side, Conor McCann and Enda Og McGarry are fit-again but not for an entire game.

Earlier this month, Gleeson challenged the narrative among the media and public that Antrim will struggle badly this season because of big numbers missing.

But rather than becoming infected by the doom and gloom, the Tipp native feels reinvigorated by the host of young players putting their hands up for the seniors.

“There’s a defeatist air around it and people think I’m just putting spin on it,” Gleeson said.

“People get to see us maybe five times in the League and how many times in the Championship - they see it.

“But I’m lucky enough to see it three and four times a week in person and when they’re in the gym. That fills me up and it should fill up the crowd too.

“There are young lads bursting to play. One of our U20s – Cormac McKeown - who had a down weekend because he’d played a lot, Freshers and the U20s. He was man-of-the-match in that Mageean final.

“He got on a plane at 8am to be involved in the Dublin game because Conor McCann got injured. So, I got some lift out of that.

“You talk about a player bursting to play for Antrim. That means a lot to me and the other U20s that are there – they are the ones that are being pulled for everything - U20s, Mageean Cup, the Schools All-Ireland series, the Ryan Cup - and these young lads are saying: ‘Yeah, I’ll be there’.

“When they get their down days, they’re bursting to get in and I’m delighted with that. You could go through all the subs for the Dublin match.”

A generation ago, former Antrim manager Terence McNaughton used to say that they sometimes were looking in the carpark to see who was turning up for training.

This season’s League campaign will be arguably Gleeson’s most difficult - but the bar has been stubbornly raised - and the younger ones want to keep it where it is.

Galway is the next demanding exam for the Saffrons.