Antrim and Ulster compatriots must invest heavily in an underage drive to progress in the big picture

Antrim celebrate after beating Derry in the Ulster U20 Hurling Championship final at Owenbeg in March Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Antrim celebrate after beating Derry in the Ulster U20 Hurling Championship final at Owenbeg in March Picture by Margaret McLaughlin Antrim celebrate after beating Derry in the Ulster U20 Hurling Championship final at Owenbeg in March Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

IN the history of the All-Ireland U21/U20 hurling championship, it’s 10 years now since Antrim caused one of the competition’s greatest shocks, possibly its greatest, given the stage of the championship.

Wexford went into the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final as hot favourites, but Antrim turned them over to become the first Ulster side to reach an All-Ireland U21 hurling final.

Nobody expected Antrim to beat an excellent Clare team, and that final was a tough experience for Antrim. Clare won by 22 points. They even had the luxury of being able to take off Tony Kelly, David McInerney, Colm Galvin, Podge Collins and Shane O’Donnell, who all started the All-Ireland senior final replay 14 days later. Kelly, Galvin and O’Donnell were still on board a year later when Clare smashed Antrim in the All-Ireland U21 semi-final in Thurles by 27 points.

Every underage team is different, but if Antrim and Ulster hurling hoped that the 2013 semi-final breakthrough would provide the inspiration and motivation for their U21/U20 sides to move forward, it certainly didn’t.

Between 2014 and 2017, Ulster sides lost their four All-Ireland U21 semi-finals by an astonishing aggregate margin of 120 points. Derry’s annihilation from Kilkenny in 2017, when the young Cats won by an incredible 52 points, did inflate the numbers – but it still didn’t hide the ugly truth.

The previous year, in 2016, Waterford beat Antrim by 29 points.

The Ulster champions subsequently entered the Leinster championship with Galway in 2018, but Antrim lost to Carlow in a preliminary round play-off after extra-time. They also lost to Carlow at the same stage, and again after extra-time, in 2019.

After losing to Dublin in 2020, Antrim finally won a game in Leinster in 2021, but it was against Ulster opposition as both Antrim and Down were in the Leinster championship that season.

Antrim beat Down before being annihilated by Laois by 32 points. Laois also hammered Antrim by 20 points in last year’s U20 championship.

At the end of the season, Antrim manager Paudie Shivers and his entire management team stepped down over an issue where several Cushendall players were expected to play an U20 hurling championship semi-final 24 hours before the senior final.

Shivers outlined plans that had been put in place to “create an environment where players in the 17-20 age group feel valued within Antrim GAA, facilitate and drive their development as well as encouraging them to go on and be the best Antrim players and people they can be”.

However, Shivers felt that the situation on that county final weekend was “totally at odds with the aim and ethos” of that programme.

Shivers was clearly rattling cages in his aim to improve that ethos to foster greater development and improvement in young Antrim hurlers. Whatever way the fall-out was processed, Shivers was back as U20 manager soon afterwards.

Development and improvement were the key words, especially along that player pathway to becoming senior hurlers.

In February, Antrim minor manager Alan Rainey said that senior manager Darren Gleeson had been hands-on with the development of the minor and U20 sides.

“There’s good cohesion between us and Darren,” said Rainey.

Shivers spoke of the same theme, and the need to have that same mindset towards development along the pathway.

“I love to win and our main goal is the Ulster championship but our main goal is to make sure Antrim is producing top-quality players to feed into the senior panel,” said Shivers in February.

Twelve of the 2022 U20 squad were part of the Antrim senior panel this season. After the minors and U20s won Ulster titles back in March, Gleeson spoke about those teams, just after Antrim had defeated Laois to preserve their Division One status for 2024.

“We could be just laying the foundations for what’s coming,” Gleeson told Brendan Crossan in these pages.

“The core of that 20s team are under the age of 18 or 18-and-a-half. We have to drive what we can into them because there’s a limited amount of hurling that’s put in front of them in minor and U20 club championships.

“They need as much hurling and as much exposure they can get. I’ve said this a few times before: whoever comes behind us will probably get the benefit of it if we can stay fighting for it.”

In the same conversation, Gleeson spoke about having “head winds against us all the time”.

Gleeson didn’t elaborate on what, who or where those winds were coming from, other than to say “all levels”.

Whatever Gleeson was referring to, Antrim clearly need to heavily focus and invest in that underage drive to ensure there are enough good players coming into the senior

set-up to make the county even more competitive.

The minors were in a group in Leinster this year with Galway, Kilkenny and Laois and, while they failed to win a game, they were unlucky to lose to Laois.

The U20s finally beat a Leinster team in the Leinster championship, hammering Meath, before losing to Westmeath by three points and going down to Offaly, who are in Sunday’s All-Ireland final.

This year’s U20 hurling championship was the most open and expansive in the history of the competition because it was the first time both provinces had a round-robin system.

Munster had a round-robin last year, with two groups of three, but Leinster finally went in that direction this year.

Offaly played seven games to win Leinster, which was previously unheard of in any provincial U20 championship, but that has been the beauty and equity of the new championship structure.

To date, there has already been 37 games in the championship, 25 in Leinster and 12 in Munster. As a comparison, there were just 20 games in last year’s U20 championship, 10 in Leinster, nine in Munster, plus the All-Ireland final. The previous year, there was just 16 in the entire championship.

There are more games and more opportunities in Leinster now for Ulster underage sides to learn, progress and develop.

Yet, the real hard work has to start in those counties first before they head south.