Antrim's Nigel Elliott looking forward after turnaround brings win in Meath
SUPPORTERS can sometimes be too quick to tell players the perceived error of their ways but Antrim fans were quite right to voice their concern right from the throw-in in Navan on Saturday.
'Wrong way! Wrong way' roared Saffron followers as their team started by shooting towards their own goal against Meath in a bizarre beginning to their Joe McDonagh Cup campaign.
Nigel Elliott was the culprit, losing his bearings, and swerving past bewildered opponents and team-mates, although he did send his shot wide. The Royals still converted the resultant '65' then and fired in two goals in the first nine minutes, but that all proved to be a false dawn as Antrim recovered to win convincingly, by 5-25 to 2-18.
Elliott was key to the visitors' revival, scoring their game-turning opening goal after 20 minutes, the first goal in his eventual hat-trick tally of 3-2.
He didn't even mind getting a 'dunt' from a disgruntled defender after cheekily converting his third goal from a tight angle, saying with a laugh:
"I think I deserved that! I'm starting to feel that now. Ah, sure, hurling's hurling, you get these slaps, you just have to go on."
That personal performance – and the all-important team win – meant he could laugh off that strange start, although he was still at a loss to explain what had happened then:
"Aww, I don't know! I actually don't know! How do you start answering that? I'm just glad it never went over."
Perhaps unusual positioning partly explained that unusual opening, with midfield an unfamiliar role for the Dunloy man: "Aye, yeah. Forwards is my favourite position. Starting midfield was a bit out of my boundary, but you just do what you have to do for the team."
Aside from those opening seconds, and a sluggish first quarter, Antrim played very well, so it made sense in the end for Elliott to say: "It's a great way to start the Joe McDonagh campaign."
"We're glad with the result on the day because in the League campaign our performances were there, we just couldn't get the results.
"We knew it was in us. It's a great way to start the Joe McDonagh campaign. On to Carlow next weekend now. Our tails will be high after that performance."
Elliott was happy how Antrim responded to their early setbacks, sensing a different mindset in the panel:
"It was a slow start, yeah, but we turned a [seven-point] deficit around which showed a bit of character. The last couple of years we would have maybe just died.
"After that there, it shows what's in this panel this year. It shows we have that fight in it. We're just looking forward to the rest of the campaign ahead in the Joe McDonagh."
Elliott's initial deployment at midfield suggested a lack of depth in the squad, and he acknowledge there's an element of that, but he insists there is quality if not quantity in Antrim:
"Our substitutes never looked out of place when they came on.
Our panel is not the biggest, but the players are all committed and it doesn't matter who we bring on or what our subs are, everybody's fighting for positions."
The Saffrons were strong to the finish on Saturday, scoring 1-1 in injury time after understandably coasting a little late on after building up a bug advantage.
Their stamina is a tribute to the work of Armagh man Tommy Stevenson, who is the fitness trainer this season, but also the dedication of the players: "Tommy's put us through our paces, aye. Tommy showed us what was needed at the start of the year. He goes through with each individual player a programme that suits them.
"He doesn't need to be come chasing us the whole time because he knows we're going to it. It's starting to show off now, the fitness…
"I would say 11 or 12 different players were coming through breaking lines, which we've been working on.
"It's good to see us racking up that score. Any team scoring 5-25 in any game is brilliant. It just shows the training we're doing is first class."
Elliott also hailed the contribution of former Tipperary hurling manager Liam Sheedy, who has helping Antrim out in an advisory capacity:
"Liam is up when he can. He was up during the League four times and took us through our paces. Liam Sheedy explains himself, you don't really explain Liam Sheedy. He's top class. To have him helping us is just giving us that extra drive."
Despite relegation from Division 1B, the league was beneficial for Antrim, says Elliott: "Definitely. 1B gave us a platform to work on. Hurling against the likes of Galway, All-Ireland Champions, at the start of the year. A great performance against Dublin.
"We were unfortunate we weren't getting results, we knew the performances were in us.
"Hopefully that's starting to show off now in this campaign. Playing the top teams improves your hurling."
Early weirdness aside, a good start for the Saffrons, with Elliott setting his sights on turning tables on opponents again with a second win next weekend, at home to Carlow:
"I think that's the first time we've beaten Meath in three or four attempts. We have a bad history against Carlow as well. We just need to go and prove everybody wrong the way we did [in Navan]. Everyone is just looking forward to it."
As long as they're looking forward the right way...