Christy O’Connor: Antrim want to prepare like the best - but did they really need to go to Portugal for a week?

Saffrons need every advantage going against Wexford to prevent their year veering off

Antrim's hurlers have face Division One opposition in Dublin and Waterford so far this season at Corrigan Park  Picture: Mal McCann 
Antrim hurlers spent a week in Portugal on a training camp but came home to a tough first afternoon in Leinster at the hands of Kilkenny. Picture: Mal McCann


The venue staged some major football championship matches in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, while it also hosted the All-Ireland camogie finals in 1944, 1946, and 1947, two of which were won by Antrim.

Historically though, the grounds at Whiterock Road in west Belfast always had a deep historical and cultural connection with Antrim hurling because of 1943.

When Antrim reached a first All-Ireland hurling final that season, Corrigan Park staged the All-Ireland quarter and semi-final against Galway and Kilkenny. The result against Kilkenny was deemed staggering at the time as Kilkenny still had nine of the team on board that won the 1939 All-Ireland.

“That Antrim should outplay these acknowledged masters of the art of hurling is a first-class sporting sensation,” reported The Irish News. “Kilkenny had no excuse to offer.”

Kilkenny argued otherwise, especially when subsequent inquests focused on the condition of the pitch – the grass was said to be too long to suit Kilkenny’s style.

When Corrigan Park was revived as a county ground a few years back, the work done on a stand and terracing almost doubled its capacity. Yet it was still a tight ground with a claustrophobic feel, which further inflated the perception of it being a hard place for the opposition to go and get a result.

Clare found out that in their opening league game in 2021, a match Antrim won.

They also drew with Wexford in that league campaign. In the 2022 league, Waterford scraped over the line up there by two points, while Dublin had only four points to spare.

When Antrim met Dublin in Corrigan in the Leinster round robin last year, the game ended in a draw.

Dublin won there by one point in this year’s league in a game Antrim should have closed out.

Antrim subsequently lost to Galway and Tipperary in Corrigan by margins of 25 and 15 points respectively but Antrim will always struggle against those top counties – Kilkenny beat them in Corrigan last May by 16 points.

Yet games against teams like Dublin and Wexford are – or should be – deemed winnable in a fortress like Corrigan.

The big question Antrim need to answer now though, is are they capable of even getting close to Wexford, never mind beating them?

The manner of last week’s 32 point annihilation from Kilkenny is a real concern.

Antrim looked devoid of energy and ideas.

Their body language was poor.

Physically, they looked miles off the pace from Kilkenny.

The squad weren’t long back from a training camp in Portugal but how much ground could they have really made up out there?

Outside of the Dublin game, Antrim lost their other four league games by an aggregate of 73 points.

They were decimated from withdrawals and injuries.

At one stage up to 15 players were on the treatment table but they still needed some of those players taking a break to come back in. After the league, a number of them did, including the Dunloy quartet of Keelan Molloy, Nigel Elliott, Seaan Elliot and Ryan Elliott.

“It’s been completely different, night and day since the league,” said captain Eoghan Campbell a few weeks back. “The good vibe is back in the camp and we’re looking to drive it on.”

The positive vibes may have returned but getting the right blend and dynamic back was always going to be much harder again when the starting team had played so little together.

It was going to be even more of a struggle when most of the returning players, or those that had been injured, had done little or no high-tempo hurling in the last six months. How can any team be expected to just turn it on?

Despite having big names back, Antrim are still down some key players from the side which beat Westmeath last May. Neil McManus has retired. Conor Johnston didn’t come back.

Neither did Joe Maskey (although he didn’t play against Westmeath last year).

Of the 19 players which did, six are no longer part of the panel.

One of the biggest difficulties Antrim have always faced is remaining consistently competitive, and building on whatever positive progress they already have made. That ground has been lost this year – as it has so often in the past.

Why does that keep happening?

The overall bigger picture needs to be addressed.

Antrim want to prepare as professionally and diligently as every other team to give themselves the best chance.

But did they really need to go to Portugal for a week?

Could that £70,000 or £80,000 (or whatever it cost) have not been better spent?

The weather was an issue for most of the spring but would Antrim not have been better served basing themselves in say, Johnstown House in Kildare from a Thursday to Sunday?

That would have also presented the opportunity to play a couple of challenge games against Offaly and Westmeath, as Laois were in the Division 2 league final.

Portugal does allow for far more training time with the weather but the only thing you can’t do in Portugal is play challenge games.

The senior team and management are only focussed on the now, but could a proportion of that money spent on the Portugal trip have been used to help the minors and U20s?

The Mageean Cup final in January between Cross and Passion and St Killian’s Garron Tower was a brilliant game, with St Killian’s going on to win the All-Ireland.

Some of those players were part of the Antrim U20 side beaten by Derry in the Ulster final. Since the winners go to Leinster, the runners-up have an opportunity to go into the All-Ireland B – just as Derry did last year, going on to win the competition. But Antrim chose not to.

Do Antrim see themselves above that level?

Derry certainly didn’t last year and look how much that benefitted this year’s side? Whatever reason Antrim had for not entering that U20B competition, the decision not to further underlined Antrim’s need for a full-time hurling CEO.

That’s a whole other debate but, for now, Antrim need to get back on track on Saturday against Wexford to prevent this Leinster campaign veering off the road.

They’ll hope to be in better shape this week.

The team have a game under their belts.

Keelan Molloy is back.

And they’re in Corrigan.

They’ll need every advantage going.