Hurling and camogie

Captain Conor McCann hoping to be in the right place again as Antrim go for glory

Conor McCann will lead out an Antrim team hoping for a successful end to a memorable season at Croke Park tomorrow. Neil Loughran caught up with the Saffrons skipper, whose attacking edge has put them on the verge of silverware...

Antrim captain Conor McCann has plundered six goals in seven games since the Saffrons returned to action after the summer, and the Creggan ace will be hoping to help Darren Gleeson's men across the line against Kerry in tomorrow's Joe McDonagh Cup final. Picture by Hugh Russell

RIGHT place, right time – for Conor McCann, that has been the story of a remarkable season in Saffron.

Tomorrow, he will become the first Antrim man to lead out his county on All-Ireland final day since Ciaran Barr did so in 1989. That they are in the curtain-raiser rather than the main event feels inconsequential, given the ups and many downs experienced in the time between.

At this stage in the Saffrons’ development, this is right where they need to be - and McCann has played a huge part in delivering them to this stage.

Since the post-lockdown resumption of inter-county action, the Creggan man has hit the goal trail in spectacular style. Always a smart, strong ball winner in the square, six goals in seven games has brought a different dimension to Antrim’s attacking play.

McCann bagged 1-1 in the Division 2A final win over tomorrow’s opponents Kerry and laid waste to all before him in the McDonagh Cup – racking up 1-3 against Westmeath and 1-1 in Carlow before two early goals helped kill off the Kingdom at Corrigan Park last month.

The nature of those majors told you plenty about how his role in Darren Gleeson’s improving side has evolved too, McCann profiting from the pace that surrounds him – first slamming home after being fed by Joe Maskey following a James McNaughton burst, another blistering break from the Loughgiel speedster leaving him with the goal at his mercy minutes later.

Right place, right time. McCann was never going to miss.

“I’d like to think I’m quite a modest person, and I would say it’s definitely the way the team has been playing and the way we’re structured,” said the 28-year-old of his recent purple patch.

“The game-plan that we work to, the players out the field do all the hard work, I sort of get myself positioned so that I’m in a position to finish things off.

“We try to focus on getting scores for the team, it doesn’t matter who gets them really or who’s in that finishing position… I’m happy to get them but there’s a lot of hard running and lads carrying the ball through tackles that are putting scores on a plate for some of the rest of us to finish.”

After three defeats from the three meetings between the counties already in 2020, McCann is wary of a potential sting in the tail when it matters most, with Kingdom boss Fintan O’Connor unlikely to be lacking in motivational words before sending his side out onto the field.

“We’re very aware that is the case.

“They have a lot of scoring threats, they’re a quality team – they wouldn’t be here otherwise. We’re conscious that if we aren’t on our game that Kerry could upset us.

“That’s the thing about going into the final, doing it in Croke Park, that all adds to it. The venue, the occasion, there’s a lot at play… we’re just trying to keep the lads as grounded as we can, keep them focused on what we need to do.”

There is plenty of youth among the Antrim ranks this year but for those survivors of the county’s most recent trips down the M1, Croke Park doesn’t hold the happiest of memories.

There was the scoreboard calamity that saw Meath crowned Christy Ring champions 2016, only for a replay to be ordered once it was realised the first game had actually ended in a draw. In a game neither side really wanted to play, the Royals prevailed at the second time of asking.

Worse was to follow on the same stage 12 months later when a first half blitzkrieg helped Carlow to a 5-25 to 4-15 win.

Despite that, McCann has conjured some magic memories wearing club colours at Croke Park, having helped Creggan to a dramatic 2014 All-Ireland JHC final draw with a Ballysaggart side that contained current Waterford stars Kieran and Stephen Bennett.

McCann was the man that day, converting a last-gasp pressure free to snatch a draw, with the Kickham’s completing the job in Mullingar a week later to cap an unforgettable year.

Six years on he has the chance to get his hands on some silverware again, and McCann insists Antrim will carry no unwanted baggage into the Joe McDonagh decider despite their recent disappointments.

“On a stage like that, you really find out where you’re at.

“You want to be on the team that’s winning, you never want to lose on All-Ireland final day. We’re very positive about the lead-up to the game, we know the quality’s there and so far the performances have been there.

“I’ve been involved since 2011, I think I missed one season, but it’s been up and down in that time. We’ve struggled with consistency across those years but this year there’s just a nice blend in the panel that we have.

“There’s no doubt the best players in the county are on the Antrim team at the minute, and the way that the season’s structured has helped that – everyone wants to play. You’re either sitting at home or you’re part of it, so that has helped.

“Obviously Darren coming in, and having the management set-up and the backroom team that he has, coupled with the panel and the buy-in from players, everything has sort of come together at the right time.”

Right place, right time - Conor McCann will be hoping that continues to be the case.

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Hurling and camogie