Hurling and camogie

Cushendall ace Paddy Burke happy to be part of reinvigorated Saffrons

Antrim centre-back Paddy Burke at Corrigan Park ahead of this Sunday’s Joe McDonagh Cup final against Kerry, which takes place at Croke Park. Picture by Hugh Russell
Neil Loughran

BY not having to travel up and down the road to Belfast, Paddy Burke reckons he’s getting back roughly three hours most days. A software developer with Allstate, the 25-year-old hasn’t been at their city centre office since March, and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

The time to prepare his own meals, to stretch and recover properly and, crucially, hours not spent staring at the back end of other cars on the M2, it’s all helped any time he has pulled on an Antrim or Cushendall jersey since.

Yet while those little inches here and there matter, it is the huge strides made away from the field that have really strengthened the Saffron cause over the past 12 months.

Darren Gleeson promised to bring a professionalism that had been sorely lacking when he came in. It couldn’t have been anticipated how swiftly that would bear fruit yet here they sit, Division 1B hurling already secured for next year and a Joe McDonagh Cup final clash with Kerry at Croke Park – the curtain raiser to Sunday’s senior final between Munster rivals Limerick and Waterford.

Burke has been around long enough to see the ups and downs first hand, but the classy centre-back senses something different this year.

“Ah it’s hard to say exactly, but there’s just been a good bit of consistency in the panel.

“We’ve had great managers in the past but Darren’s brought a seriously professional element to it, in terms of the calibre of people who are there. The likes of Brendan Murphy, who has been doing for the strength and conditioning, has been a serious addition.”

Murphy came highly recommended to Gleeson having been the lead S&C coach with Canada’s cycling team for a four-year period that included their preparation for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

More recently, Murphy held a similar remit with Japan’s cycling federation, where he was charged with developing high performance programmes, while the County Down native also had spells working with Bryansford and the county’s senior footballers in the past.

The knock-on effect of enlisting such expertise has been the buy-in from players across the county, resulting in huge competition within the panel. It’s something Antrim have craved.

“Darren brought that experience with him from Tipperary and it’s helped massively.

“Now there’s 32 every night battling for their jerseys – that has made a big difference to the consistency we’ve shown this year. When the competition is that great, there’s no taking the foot off the gas.

“Every night in training you’re marking someone like a James McNaughton, Niall McKenna, Keelan Molloy, that calibre of player. That leaves you no choice but to go at training properly, you’re preparing for it as soon as you get up in the morning because you know the test that’s coming later.

“You know you’re probably getting it harder in training than you would in most games.”

Their previous two campaigns since the McDonagh Cup’s inception provide a stark comparison to the progress made in 2020, Antrim finishing on four points both times after promising starts.

This time around, the only game the Saffrons didn’t win was the dramatic late draw in Carlow – and even that felt like a victory of sorts after Domhnall Nugent’s added time goal secured a share of the spoils.

To have done it without Burke’s club-mate, the talismanic Neil McManus, makes the feat all the more impressive and gives a clear sign of the strength-in-depth Gleeson’s panel possesses.

“Everyone knows how good a servant Neil has been to Antrim and the calibre of player he is,” said Burke of McManus, who could feature against the Kingdom on Sunday after battling back from the hamstring injury sustained in October.

“He’s been doing all his rehab, and when you see the effort he’s put in to even get back into contention for a jersey, that helps. But it’s testament to the other players who are there that even when Neil isn’t available, they can step up.

“It’s a young panel, and a seriously driven panel. As long as everyone stays committed to it, with the same energy we’ve seen this year, there’s no reason we can’t keep building.

“There’s not really any limit to where it could go - playing 1B next year will really help the development too. When they’re young, it can only help being exposed to that level of competition.”

Another step along that road would be to earn a crack at the 2021 Leinster Championship – the carrot should the Saffrons prevail on Sunday.

Kerry have ambitions of their own too, though, and having already lost out to Antrim three times this year, there could be no better stage to bring that run to an end.

“Both teams know each other inside out,” admits Burke.

“But all those times we’ve played them they’ve been maybe missing one or two, their team has changed slightly so I’m sure they’re keen to make sure their best players are out on the pitch this time around.

“We can’t control how motivated Kerry are, we can only look after ourselves. Putting it on before the senior final shows the standing of the competition, and everyone wants to show they can play at the higher level when you’re on a stage like that.”

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Hurling and camogie