Darren Gleeson: Antrim hurlers will relish the step up in class
CLARE in the first League game, Dublin in the Leinster Championship.
The 2021 season is shaping up to be every bit as tough as Darren Gleeson expected it to be, but he feels the Antrim senior hurlers will relish the step up in class.
Last season Antrim enjoyed a flawless campaign, gaining promotion to Division One before winning the Joe McDonagh Cup after a 0-22 to 1-17 win over Kerry in Croke Park in December.
Antrim last competed in the Leinster SHC back in 2015 when they finished bottom of the Qualifier group and were subsequently relegated to the Christy Ring Cup - the-then second tier.
On their return to the Liam MacCarthy Cup, Antrim will face Dublin in the quarter-final with the winners facing Galway.
Wexford and Laois clash in the other quarter-final for the right to face Kilkenny in the last four.
The quarter-final losers will then go into a preliminary round Qualifier tie which will double up as a relegation play-off.
Antrim will also face Dublin in Division One Group B of the Allianz Hurling League on Saturday, May 22 at Parnell Park.
Prior to that, the Saffrons begin their season by hosting the Banner County at Corrigan Park on Sunday, May 9 before a trip to Nowlan Park to face Kilkenny a week later.
Antrim boss Gleeson knows his side are going to face some huge tests in the coming weeks and months, but believes his squad will embrace the challenge of competing with the top teams.
“Dublin will be a tough test in the Championship, they are well-established at the top table now,” said Gleeson.
“They’ve won a League title (2011) and they won a Leinster title eight years ago. We’re in with the big boys in Leinster now and there were no easy games from the three options we had of Dublin, Laois and Wexford. There is nothing handy with any of those counties – Laois turned over Dublin a few years back.
“We play Clare in the first game of the League up in Belfast. That’s a huge game for us as we are on the road for our next two games (against Kilkenny and Dublin).
“There is a great buzz among the lads, they know the league games and they know who we have to look forward to in the Championship.
“It does bring a focus and a renewed energy to the boys. To have that certainty of knowing when you are training and when you are playing was something that was badly needed for the players.
“Hopefully, they can go and make all those fixtures count when they get the chance.”
As restrictions continue to ease, inter-county teams were permitted to return to collective training on Monday night.
While Antrim’s successful Joe McDonagh Cup campaign meant they remained in action right through until mid-December, Gleeson admits it was great to finally reunite the squad at Dunsilly.
“We started back on Monday night at Dunsilly and we got a great night for it, the weather was perfect and everything,” stated Gleeson.
“We are lucky in Antrim, we’ve a Head of Athletic Development, Brendan Murphy, and he has been in touch with the lads and keeping tabs on their programmes, both for the senior hurlers and footballers. They’ve been monitored throughout the winter.
“I’ve a great team there with Jim (Close) keeping in contact with the lads in Belfast and Gary (O’Kane) and Johnny (Campbell) doing the same for the North Antrim boys.
“Everyone was in great form at training on Monday night and it was unreal to get back out on to the pitch.
“On Sunday night, when you are getting the gear together and getting things in order, it was great just to know that we are getting back on the road and everyone is looking forward to the new season.”