Antrim hurlers aiming to add McDonagh Cup success to League promotion - McCloskey
ONE step forward – with sights set on a huge step up. Antrim hurlers may have already secured a return to Division One hurling but they're determined to book a place at the Championship top table too.
The condensed nature of this year's hurling championship means that the top two in the Joe McDonagh Cup won't be involved in this year's Liam MacCarthy – but the winners will participate next year.
Antrim forward Dan McCloskey admits he and his colleagues have their eyes on that trophy, having under-performed in the second tier in recent years.
They began with a thumping victory over last season's beaten McDonagh Cup finalists Westmeath, beating them by 4-25 to 1-15 in Corrigan Park, but still face tricky trips to Carlow and Meath either side of another home game against Kerry.
The Saffrons edged out the Kingdom in the delayed Division 2A promotion play-off earlier this month, but that was just the first part of what Antrim hope can be a dream double in 2020, says they Loughgiel man:
"It's massive. The National League is one thing, but the Joe McDonagh was always the prize we were looking at too. We know with the teams we're up against it won't be easy, but that's where we want to be, where we want to push on to.
"Playing Division One next year, that's the calibre of teams we want to be against. Hopefully we can do it in the Joe McDonagh and push on to the Championship next year.
"It was massive to get up in the League, but every team wants to win in Championship. This is the pinnacle for us this year and hopefully if we win it we can push on and look at broader horizons."
Antrim were without seven potential starters due to illness and injury, with five having tested positive for Covid-19, another ruled out as a 'close contact' of one of those, and star forward Neil McManus hamstrung after the win over Kerry.
Yet McCloskey and his team-mates made light of those absentees against Westmeath, with Ciaran Clarke scoring 2-8 and captain Conor McCann adding 1-3 in their 19-point victory.
"We've a group of 32 players there," said McCloskey. "We knew we were missing certain players but everybody is champing at the bit and everybody is pushing at the wheel. We knew we had a task ahead of us. It's a great result to get and now we push on the Carlow next week…
"The panel has been worked on this past two years, even before Darren [Gleeson] came in. There's always a good atmosphere and there's a unity with the team this year, definitely.
"Especially the performances in the National League and we've carried that through to the Joe McDonagh, even after seven months off. Through lockdown, the training was tough, but everyone bought into it, and it paid dividends there."
McCloskey also played down the strength of the wind facing Antrim in the first half in Belfast, although the elements made their 2-9 to 0-9 interval lead all the more impressive:
"It was a cross-field breeze more than anything. We knew what we had to do, we knew how they set up and how they were trying to attack the game and we tried to stem that from the back. I think everyone bought into it and did their job."
He did acknowledge the efficiency of the Saffrons' shooting, with only four wides overall: "Aye, especially with the circumstances of the wind. Once we got a foothold in the game, 30 minutes in, our scoring came and the ball was flying. The ball was sticking too and the confidence grew throughout the game.
"We knew we were up against it. Westmeath put up a big score last year in Dunloy and previous to that too, we knew what we were up against. From the word 'go' we pushed on and everybody was champing at the bit to get at them and get a result."