ULSTER'S FINEST: Irish News Ulster All-Stars Hurling Team of the Year

12/6/2021  Antrims   Ciaran Clarke   in action  with   Laois   Conor Phelan  in Saturdays  NHL Div 1b game at Corrigan Park     Picture  Seamus  Loughran
12/6/2021 Antrims Ciaran Clarke in action with Laois Conor Phelan in Saturdays NHL Div 1b game at Corrigan Park Picture Seamus Loughran



Antrim’s Championship campaign finished on a bit of a downer as they returned to the Joe McDonagh in 2022, but there were more forward strides taken this year. Ryan Elliott was catching flies for the Saffrons for most of the year, and he kept the score respectable against Dublin at Parnell Park with a string of ridiculous saves.



As Down retained Division 2A status in an impressive league campaign and made sure of Joe McDoangh level hurling next summer, Portaferry’s Matt Conlan was Ronan Sheehan’s go-to man in defence all season. Conlan played his part in a rock solid defensive display against Meath in the McDonagh Cup at the beginning of July and was equally formidable in the league against the likes of Carlow.


Gerard Walsh made it to a county senior final with Rossa in the autumn and he was consistent for Antrim throughout the year, even when others around him were losing their heads in the league defeat to Dublin. After initially stepping into the full-back breach for Antrim because of injury to Mattie Donnelly, he made the role his own.


Stephen Rooney was one of seven Antrim players named in the 2020 Joe McDonagh Team of the Year and he brought that sterling form into 2021 with him. The St Paul’s man excelled in the wins over Clare and Laois and the thrilling draw with Wexford at Corrigan Park in the league.



Man of the match in Ballycran’s spectacular Down senior final win over Portaferry earlier this month, Conor Woods showed in 2021 that he could play and thrive in any championship. Woods was to the fore in the victory over Meath which secured Down’s Joe McDonagh status for 2022 and he made some crucial interventions over the course of the league campaign in the spring.


Hugely impressive in the drawn game with Wexford which secured Antrim’s top flight status with a game to spare, Darren Gleeson was lucky to have him at his disposal. Moved to wing-back for the league campaign to accommodate the returning Neil McManus at midfield, the Cushendall man’s running and passing ability were glowing features of his presence, especially in the win against Clare.


The Cushendall man found the going tough during Antrim’s disappointing Championship campaign, struggling against Dublin and Laois, but the league was a different story. A sweeper who interprets the role really well, he was excellent in the game against Wexford, helping to contain the Yellowbellies’ attack to secure a precious point. He was also magnificent in the opening day win over Clare.

Fermanagh&rsquo;s Tom Keenan and Cavan&rsquo;s Cillian Sheanon have both made the team having faced each other in this year's Lory Meagher Cup final<br />Picture: Philip Walsh
Fermanagh’s Tom Keenan and Cavan’s Cillian Sheanon have both made the team having faced each other in this year's Lory Meagher Cup final
Picture: Philip Walsh



Keelan Molloy was devastating at centre-forward for Dunloy in their recent Antrim SHC final win over Rossa, hitting three points from play in the first half and adding a further two in the second half and he will be expected to pick up where he left off in next month’s Ulster semi-final against Slaughtneil. Playing at midfield for Antrim against Wexford, Molloy showed nerves of steel to point from an awkward angle deep in injury-time to secure a draw.


Last month, Cillian Sheanon was playing midfield for Cuala against Kilmacud Croke’s in the Dublin SHC semi-finals. Earlier in the year, he was putting his shoulder to the Cavan wheel – by virtue of his father’s birthright – and achieving sporting excellence on the way to a Lory Meagher final.

Sheanon was Cavan’s inspirational metronome in their league and Championship runs, sweeping up behind the midfield and playing the shirt off his back every time he wore the royal blue. Put Sheanon in Antrim’s midfield and he wouldn’t look out of place.



Neil McManus couldn’t have given any more of himself in Cushendall’s Antrim championship semi-final defeat to Rossa and he displayed the same commitment to the Saffron cause throughout the year. At 33, McManus brings experience in buckets to the Antrim panel along with his quality and helped them push Kilkenny all the way at Nowlan Park.


Niall McKenna performed at the very highest level against Wexford back in June. The Sarsfield’s clubman has been outrageously consistent under Darren Gleeson and he epitomises all that is good about the side. He works himself to the bone down the flank and possess an insatiable appetite for getting his hurl or hands on dirty ball. The dirtier the ball, the better he becomes. And when he has the sliotar in his hands he plays majestic hurling.


As Derry battled to Division 2B survival and a Christy Ring Cup final, Cormac O’Doherty was one of the top scorers in both competitions.

Derry struggled for parts of the season and suffered a hammering in that Christy Ring final to Offaly – and yet O’Doherty kept sticking the ball over the bar - 33 times in the summer - and was ably assisted by Brian Cassidy.



Fermanagh’s victory over Cavan in the Lory Meagher Cup final was the only national title won by an Ulster hurling county this year, and Tom Keenan scored 3-2 for the Ernemen in that match. The speed merchant, who plays his club hurling with Lisbellaw, deserves his place having bagged a career-defining hat-trick in that Croke Park final.


Would Antrim have retained their top flight status without the scoring prowess of Ciarán Clarke? There’s an argument to be made that they wouldn’t have. In the famous opening day victory over Clare, Clarke hit 1-11 - over half his side's total. He was magnificent from placed balls that day, while showing guts and guile to ripple the Banner’s net.


It is difficult to ignore the gold standards set by Eoghan and Daithí Sands in the Down forward line. The Portaferry brothers have always brought a bit of class to the Down table and are long overdue provincial recognition. Daithí Sands’ contribution, in particular, to the Down cause this year was immense.