Antrim 'on the right track' ahead of Joe McDonagh Cup campaign insists captain Conor McCann
CONOR McCann couldn’t help but watch on with an envious eye as the Munster minefield unfolded in spectacular fashion last summer, giving way to one of the best hurling Championships the game has ever seen.
There is nothing he would love more than to help bring Antrim back to the big stage but, 30 years on from the county’s last All-Ireland final appearance, the Creggan man knows the Saffrons are beginning from the bottom of the mountain.
Born in 1992, he has heard plenty of stories about the men of ’89 who humbled Offaly in the sun before coming up short against Tipperary on the big day. Those are proud memories for a proud county, but they are fading fast.
“I’ve watched parts of it, I haven’t seen the full stream of it yet,” he smiles.
“It’s more people talking about going to it and stuff but yeah, everything sort of relates back to that team. It’s heartening to hear that’s where Antrim were but you do realise how far we are away from where they were at that stage.
“It’s a good reminder of where Antrim could get back to if they got their act together.”
The first steps of that journey are taking place.
Off the field, the £1m-plus Gaelfast programme is now up and running, a five-year plan designed to promote Gaelic games in schools across Belfast and hopefully energise a new generation of hurlers and footballers.
Between the white lines, Antrim’s Joe McDonagh Cup campaign gets under way against Kerry in Dunloy tomorrow night, with of a Liam MacCarthy Cup spot on offer for the two teams that finish top of the pile.
McCann doesn’t intend to hang about the McDonagh Cup too long, but the Saffrons almost exited in the wrong direction last year after ending up in a relegation play-off with Kildare. This time around, there can be no margin for error if they are to make a push for the top.
“I remember coming here and watching Karl McKeegan, he’s part of our management team now, when Antrim beat Carlow in the  Christy Ring final. That was the last Christy Ring we ever won, and it has sort of flipped the last couple of years,” said McCann, who was at Croke Park yesterday for the launch of the McDonagh Cup.
“What Carlow have done is what you want to aim for – getting back into the Liam MacCarthy. This is the platform to do that on, it’s competitive and if you get a bit of momentum up you could lead yourself back in there.
“That’s the premium level of hurling, the best teams in Ireland, and ultimately that’s who you want to play against.”
Regardless of what is achieved this year, however, it is what happens down the line that will really shape the future of Antrim hurling.
Coming from a club outside of the Glens to captain the county side is something McCann is understandably proud of. When he first started to take an interest in the game, hurling was only beginning to take hold again in Creggan.
And he hopes that, in the long-term, the county will stand to benefit from the spreading of the gospel beyond the traditional strongholds.
“We hadn’t a team for a long time and then in the late ’90s it really kicked in and things got going again.
“My da had a big part to play in our involvement, my two older sisters were big into camogie… I’m the youngest in the family so I was sort of just led that way from the garden onwards.
“Now you see there’s a lot of work going in at underage level around Antrim - the likes of Gaelfast is only the tip hopefully, and we’re going to see the benefit of that in 10 years maybe.
“In north Antrim and the south west where we’re at, Gaelic games is really strong, the knowledge around it’s strong, the teachers bring it into their PE. There are so many parts of Belfast that just don’t even hear about hurling or Gaelic games at all.
“We’re only at the start but tapping into Belfast, increasing participation, that’s the big aim and that’s what Antrim need to do if they’re going to get back up there again.
“It’s a work in progress, but hopefully we’re on the right track.”