Antrim hurlers need to avoid defeat against Carlow to remain in Leinster SHC series

Is this Darren Gleeson’s last dance with Antrim?

Darren Gleeson was delighted after Antrim secured their Division One status with a fully deserved win over Laois
Darren Gleeson is hoping to guide Antrim to Leinster SHC safety against Carlow at Corrigan Park
Leinster Senior Hurling Championship round five: Antrim v Carlow (Sunday, Corrigan Park, 2pm)

IF this is to be Darren Gleeson’s last dance with the Antrim hurlers, it would be rough justice should it end in relegation to the Joe McDonagh tier.

The Tipperary man’s body of work over the last five seasons deserves much more – but if they fall to Carlow at Corrigan Park on Sunday that will be the gut-wrenching upshot.

A win or a draw will be enough for Antrim to hold onto their hard-earned Leinster SHC status, and Gleeson can leave his adopted land a relatively contented man.

Given the difficult path the senior hurlers have had to travel in 2024, there was a sense that last season was perhaps the right time for the senior manager to depart.

There seemed a neat symmetry to it too with Antrim having just beaten Westmeath in Mullingar to stay in the Leinster series as well as Neil McManus bowing out.

But the pull of having another crack at Division One and the Leinster series was too great, and so he stayed on.

It has been a hugely frustrating, stressful year though. Hamstrung by absenteeism and injuries, Division 1B was a write-off and, as always, Leinster has had its challenges.

But this is the ruthless world of elite hurling. Up north, you must move mountains to make an inch of progress.

And anyone that has followed this group of Antrim players over the last five or six years will agree that mountains have been moved in the name of progress and hurling’s tectonic plates have shifted a time or two.

Ah, but when they shifted, it was like a soothing balm spread across the entire county.

Beating Clare in the League during COVID and drawing with Wexford in the same campaign at Corrigan Park felt like days of emancipation for Antrim.

Corrigan never felt more alive. Dublin, Kilkenny and Cork never got it easy on the Whiterock Road either before Wexford crumbled under Antrim’s emotional weight less than a month ago.

Given the thinner air of Division One and Leinster Championship hurling, it was never about winning silverware for Antrim – it was more about staying there, digging your heels in, and gaining respect.

And that, they have done under Gleeson. Neil McManus’s emotive words summed up the squad’s raison d’etre.

“You grow up with your passions, generally,” McManus said.

“Every one of the kids that come through the gates of Corrigan Park, hopefully, will leave wanting to be a player on the field at some point in the future – and that’s the thought we’re trying to leave them with.”

But 2024 isn’t in Antrim’s rear view just yet. Their biggest game of the season comes on Sunday.

Carlow are tough as old boots too with a sprinkling of top-quality forwards such as Chris Nolan and Marty Kavanagh; they’re buoyed by drawing with Kilkenny but confidence was slightly eroded by only mustering 1-13 at home to a born-again Wexford.

There was no love lost between the two teams when Carlow last visited Corrigan Park for a Joe McDonagh tie in 2018 when the visitors finished with 12 players and a couple of Antrim players were hospitalised.

Gleeson knows this is a zero-sum scenario for Antrim.

After an encouraging display against Galway last week, the Tipp man said: “Carlow are coming here next week and there’s a good chance it’ll be the pivotal point of five, six years of work.

“We have to make sure we are ready for that.”

With a raucous Corrigan Park at Gleeson’s back and one his strongest starting line-ups available to him, Antrim are expected to see off Carlow and stay right where they are.

Antrim: R Elliott; C Boyd, R McCloskey, P Burke; G Walsh, N O’Connor, E Campbell; M Bradley, K Molloy; N Elliott, J McNaughton, N McKenna; C Cunning, C McCann, S Elliott
Carlow: B Tracey; P Doyle, D Wall, C Lawlor; J Kavanagh, K McDonald T Lawlor; J McCullagh, R Coady; C Nolan, C Whelan, M Kavanagh; C Kehoe; JM Nolan, J Doyle