Antrim will be ready for Joe McDonagh Cup campaign: Neil McManus
ANTRIM hurler Neil McManus has acknowledged that suffering relegation has been a bitter pill to swallow - but firmly believes the performances in Division 1B were hugely encouraging ahead of their Joe McDonagh Cup campaign.
The Saffrons travel to Meath in their Championship opener on Saturday May 5 with the McDonagh finalists entering the All-Ireland SHC Qualifiers in July.
“The good thing is the players and the management understand how different things could have been with a bit of luck and the minor details of our League displays,” said McManus.
“We could easily have been in a League quarter-final, which was totally doable given the performances we put in, and the expectation coming into the Joe McDonagh would have been massive.
“The Joe McDonagh is what we’ve been focused on all year. Our goal was still to be in 1B, that didn’t happen, but this competition is one of our goals.
“We have five games and we could genuinely lose every one of them – but we could also genuinely win every one of them. We played Meath in the Walsh Cup at the start of the year and they beat us by a point. We’re travelling to Meath this time and there’ll be nothing in it.”
Laois, who defeated Antrim in a relegation play-off to stay in Division 1B, will compete in the inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup alongside Meath, Kerry, Carlow and Westmeath. The six teams will play on a round robin basis.
Antrim can count themselves desperately unlucky to find themselves back in Division Two next season.
They ran All-Ireland champions Galway and Dublin close in their opening fixtures before suffering further losses to Laois and Limerick.
They scored a morale-boosting win over Offaly before losing a relegation shoot-out with Laois in Dunloy on March 18.
McManus said: “It’s one of the best League campaigns that I’ve been involved in. People will say: ‘Are you mad? You hardly won a game!’
“Really and truly, we should have got a result in Galway and definitely should have got a result against Dublin in Corrigan Park. You add the win over Offaly and we should have been in a quarter-final.
“It’s such a different complexion on the whole season and people would be talking about Antrim being a totally rejuvenated force.
“Limerick totally outclassed us in Cushendall. They have the best panel in Ireland… It was really disappointing after the performances we’d put in.
“Personally, I enjoyed the League campaign so much – the battles: [Gearoid] McInerney against Galway and Chris Crummey against Dublin, Declan O’Hanlon against Limerick and Matthew Whelan against Laois.
“They are the men you want to be playing against...
“People have said: ‘Don’t worry – you’ll come back up.’ One of the the hardest things we ever did was to get back up to 1B last season.”
McManus, who is recovering from concussion but should be available for the Meath clash on Saturday week, shouldered much of the responsibility after the play-off defeat to Laois.
Easily Antrim’s best player so far in 2018, the Cushendall man saw his late penalty saved against Laois that seemed to spur the visitors on in Dunloy.
“I take a lot of the responsibility against Laois. I missed a penalty and it was one of the turning points of the game.
“In that game we didn’t win enough ball around the middle of the field. The damage was done in the first half because we dominated the second half but we didn’t convert enough of our chances… We really shot ourselves in the foot.”
The Antrim hurlers will have exactly 47 days to come to terms with the disappointment of relegation and be ready for their Championship opener against Meath.
The two McDonagh finalists have the added incentive of facing the third placed teams in Leinster and Munster’s round robin series for a place in the All-Ireland SHC quarter-finals.