Antrim out to out 2016 behind them by starting with a bang against Westmeath
Walsh Cup round one: Westmeath v Antrim (tomorrow, 2pm, Kinnegad)
NEW year, new Antrim. How many times has that been said? The management team of Terence McNaughton, Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley, Gary O’Kane and Neal Peden have been around the block enough times to know the perceptions that exist.
They know too that those perceptions exist for a reason. Last year was particularly ugly for everybody connected with Antrim hurling – PJ O’Mullan’s shock departure just months into the job and the Christy Ring Cup final debacle generating the kind of column inches the county could do without.
The new management team, originally appointed on an interim basis before taking the reins permanently, had to make do after taking over from O’Mullan.
Eventually though, something had to give. Once the dust settled on a disappointing campaign, the real work began.
Seven weeks of hard training without a hurl in sight was designed to separate the men from the boys.
Having held the post previously, McNaughton and McKinley were determined to learn from any mistakes they may have made in the past.
Now, on the eve of their first game of the year against Westmeath in the Walsh Cup tomorrow, the mood music coming from the Saffron camp is good.
There have been too many false dawns in the past for an experienced head like McKinley to get carried away, but with air cleared, opinions expressed and a collective spirit garnered, he is in a positive frame of mind.
“We had a meeting with the players at the start of the year and we asked them ‘why are we here?’ and ‘what can we do to get out of it?’ There was no rocket science in it,” explained ‘Woody’.
“They identified problems, we identified problems, and we all came to the conclusion that the problems were simple and we had to sort them out. One of them was fitness - we thought the fitness level of the team wasn’t good, and we thought the commitment level of the players wasn’t good.”
A lackadaisical approach to training in some quarters is not a new problem in Antrim. McNaughton and McKinley saw it at first hand during their previous spell in charge and were agreed it couldn’t continue if the county was to emerge from its current malaise.
“Attendance at training, people coming and going, not knowing where people were at - the issues then are the same things we’re talking about now,” added McKinley.
“Sometimes you did bend the rules for certain players because you felt Antrim needed those players to go forward, and the one thing we promised ourselves this time is it has to be done right. Boys have to be totally committed.
“The training would’ve been tough, no doubt about it, but that’s the way they want it and that’s the way we want it. We basically wanted to sort out uncommitted players, and we did.
“After we went through it, I said to the boys that night in the changing room ‘I’m looking down here and I see people that I don’t think will make it’. But they made it through it, we haven’t lost a great deal.
“We want players to go out there and do their best irrespective if who they are. There’s no one foot in, one foot out now. You have to step into the ring.
“There’s a lot of work to do but now the games start, the hurling starts – the more enjoyable side for everybody starts.”
Loughgiel stalwart Eddie McCloskey said he felt he needed a break from hurling and opted off the panel before Christmas while O’Donovan Rossa’s James Connolly was unable to commit for 2017.
On Wednesday night it was confirmed that lively Ballycastle forward Saul McCaughan had signed a deal with Irish League soccer team Coleraine, and will therefore be unavailable for inter-county duty.
“Saul’s a good player but soccer’s one of these things that sometimes people have to do it to get it out of their system,” said McKinley.
“Maybe this is Saul’s time, he wants to give this a go and see he goes. You never know.”
Former captain Neil McManus is available again after taking time out to travel last year and could feature tomorrow, while Niall McKenna has recovered from injury and could play.
Paul Shiels is also back after the hip surgery that ruled him out of last season, although the Antrim management will treat ‘Shorty’ with kid gloves, while Conor McCann has returned to the Antrim fold.