Antrim hurlers’ NHL campaign can’t end quickly enough as they head to Westmeath

Antrim V Dublin hurling at Corrigan Park
Antrim V Dublin hurling Antrim's Eoghan Campbell, Conor Boyd, Niall McKenna chase down Dublin's Paddy Smyth during last month's NHL clash (Mal McCann)

Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Westmeath v Antrim (Saturday, Mullingar, 3.30pm)

By Brendan Crossan

FOR the Antrim hurlers, it’s been a case of so close and yet so far. Their hopes of nailing fourth place in Division 1B went up in smoke as soon as Dublin left Corrigan Park last month with a fortuitous one-point win.

Whatever happens in Mullingar on Saturday and at home to mighty Tipperary at Corrigan Park on St Patrick’s weekend, Antrim’s League season can and will be boiled down to that one unfortunate goalkeeping error by young Tiernan Smyth in the dying embers of the Dublin game that gift-wrapped the Sky Blues the points.

Given Antrim’s shorn resources and the high number of relative rookies, a win over Dublin would have been one of the results of the year - not just in hurling but also in the big-ball code.

It would be a major shock if the top four in Division 1B changes over the next week with Antrim and Westmeath effectively battling it out in Mullingar on Saturday afternoon to avoid finishing bottom, albeit with no relegation at the end of it due to a planned League rejig in 2025.

Either side of that near-miss against the Dubs, Antrim have suffered two heavy beatings to Limerick and Galway – by 27 and 25 points, respectively – and while these kinds of defeats naturally dent a group’s confidence, they probably haven’t dented it as much as the score-lines are inclined to conjure.

“I’m not particularly worried about it,” said Sarsfields attacker Niall McKenna in the immediate aftermath of the Galway defeat at Corrigan.

“Now, Galway are a good team but a lot of it was down to our own errors, fundamental stuff, silly stuff. We’ll not be too disheartened about it. It’s stuff that we can tidy up at training ourselves. That’s nothing to do with the opposition and once we tidy that up I’m still confident in the group this year.”

You read Antrim’s injury list and you’d weep. Throw in the high-profile absentees and this League campaign was always going to be Darren Gleeson’s toughest since taking the managerial reins.

“We’ve a long list of injuries to come back into the squad too and that’ll boost the squad,” McKenna insisted.

On Antrim’s last visit to Mullingar last May, a brilliant second-half display enabled them to preserve their Liam MacCarthy status for 2024.

Nine of the starting line-up that day – Ryan Elliott, Gerard Walsh, Conal Bohill, James McNaughton, Michael Bradley, Keelan Molloy, Conor Johnston, Neil McManus and Seaan Elliott – aren’t available due to a multitude of reasons.

Contrast that with Westmeath’s line-up that put up a respectable 2-21 against Tipperary last time out as they fielded nine players who featured against Antrim last May and therefore boast more continuity between 2023 and ‘24.

The fact that Antrim could only name a 21-man squad to travel to Cusack Park tells you something of Gleeson’s shredded resources, not helped by the county’s U20 provincial final meeting against Derry at Corrigan Park falling on the same day.

Antrim are up against it in Mullingar on Saturday afternoon – but there’s nothing fatal about the outcome.

With a drip-feed of bodies expected back over the next few weeks, mentally, Antrim are already thinking of Kilkenny at Nowlan Park on April 21.

Last summer’s trip to Mullingar had so much riding on the outcome. Saturday’s trip is more about auditioning for the Leinster SHC round robin, and willing this League campaign to be over as soon as possible.

Antrim ( NHL v Westmeath): T Smyth, P Duffin, R McCloskey, P Burke; S Walsh, R McGarry, N O’Connor; E Og McGarry, E Campbell; R McAteer, R McMullan, N McKenna; C Cunning, C McCann, F McCurry