Antrim hurlers should give top flight a lash: Arron Graffin
CUSHENDALL ace Arron Graffin has urged the Antrim senior hurlers to keep the shackles off and continue where they left off last season ahead of their eagerly awaited return to top flight hurling in 2021.
The 32-year-old defender, who enjoyed an 11-year senior career with the Saffrons, has agreed to become part of the Antrim minor hurling managerial set-up led by St Paul’s man Paul Donnelly for the forthcoming season.
Knee and hip injuries prevented the highly-rated defender from resuming his inter-county career in 2020 and while he can’t wait to get to work with the minors, maintaining the upward trajectory of Darren Gleeson’s senior side is crucial to inspiring the younger generation.
Antrim enjoyed incredible success under the Tipperary native last season, clinching promotion back to Division One hurling and winning their first-ever Joe McDonagh title at Croke Park.
Graffin couldn’t have been more impressed with the seniors last season and hopes they can hold their position in both Division One and in the Leinster SHC, courtesy of their League and Championship wins, respectively.
“The set-up they have with Darren Gleeson seems to be top class,” says Graffin, who will be joined in the minor set-up by Paudie Shivers and Kieran Killyleagh.
“They seem to be enjoying their hurling and they are playing a nice brand of stuff too.
“Years gone by we probably relied on the likes of McManus or Paul Shiels to get scores, but you see the spread of scores on that team. Wee ‘Clarkey’ [Ciaran Clarke] had a fantastic year and Conor McCann and Niall McKenna. I was absolutely thrilled and it was all about getting to the next stage.
“So they’re up with the big teams next year and getting promoted to Division One was massive. It was absolutely essential and now they’re going to be playing against top class teams week in week out.”
With the GAA still no nearer to deciding a start date for the National Leagues, there could yet be some format changes to hurling's top flight similar to football.
Lockdown has undoubtedly hurt everyone's preparations but Graffin doesn’t buy the notion the Ulstermen are at a bigger disadvantage than some of the big guns heading into the season.
“Everybody is in the same boat,” he said. “Let them go and have a crack at it, let the shackles off and go at it. It’s great to see from where Antrim was. I’ve seen a few good days and a lot of bad days but in 2020 Antrim had a number of good days which was great to see.”
Graffin has no plans to stop playing club hurling, despite a recent hip operation, and hopes that Cushendall can hit back from a desperately disappointing 2020 season that ended in a Championship quarter-final defeat to surprise package O’Donovan Rossa.
“I’m under illusions as the specialist said if I continued down the road I was going and at that level it won’t be good for your body. But if the hip and mind feel okay I’ll keep playing, no problems.
“Cushendall is very important to me. I love the bunch of players we have. We didn’t do ourselves justice last year but Cushendall are always there or thereabouts every year and we pride ourselves on competing at the top table.
“It was a strange Championship," he added.
"We’d very little practice games, there was no league and getting a challenge game was difficult. But ‘Rossa had a super year. They had all their players at home, they had total buy-in.
“If you look at the Rossa team, on paper, they have some super players. Big Stephen Beatty has played for the county, Michael Armstrong, ‘Cricky’ McGuinness – they have all played for the county and probably should be still on that panel. They’re versatile and can play anywhere too.
“On a personal note, we needed a number of games to get us going and it just didn’t work for us on the day. I thought Rossa were much, much better than us and they nearly pipped Dunloy [in the semi-finals].
Studying for a Masters in Sports Coaching and Performance, Graffin is keen to learn from the rest of the Antrim minor hurling management team.
“It was Neal Peden [Director or Hurling] who asked me would I be interested in coming on board. The timing was right. I said I’d loved to be involved and doing this course is a big help. I’m still playing obviously, which is very, very important to me. It’s going in and learning. If you’ve an open mind you can always be learning new things. There are great guys involved in this set-up as well and if I can learn a wee bit from them and take it away that'll be great."