Darren Gleeson: Antrim players must not undersell themselves
ANTRIM’S players have been told that they must not undersell themselves and find a way to emulate the teams of the late 1980s and early ‘90s upon their return to top-flight hurling this weekend.
Manager Darren Gleeson will guide them into a Sunday afternoon home game against Clare that would ordinarily have had a revamped Corrigan Park bursting at the seams.
The match will be broadcast by TG4’s online app, and will be Antrim’s first game back among the big boys for three years.
Aided by various restructures, Antrim spent 13 of the 20 seasons between 1989 and 2008 in Division One hurling, but have been outside the top flight for four of the last five years.
Former Tipperary goalkeeper Gleeson knows that expectations outside the camp will revolve around respectability, beating Laois and staying up, but feels such a mindset among his players would be a barrier to progress.
“I suppose everyone outside our bubble will be looking at success as staying up in both [league and championship], but we’ve an ambitious group here.
“We’re not going to go out with the attitude of ‘ah, we shouldn’t be beating A or B, and we might have a chance against C’.
“I’d always say that to the lads, ‘don’t undersell yourselves’. They’re top-quality hurlers, all proven at the top level in club hurling, and a lot of young talent coming into it as well.
“I’ve no problem saying it in public, they have to be ambitious and say that we belong at this level, let’s go and play at the level we know we can play at. If we do that, it can end up anywhere.
“I can only learn from what went on in the past with Antrim. If you talk to the teams of the late 80s and ‘90s, their biggest success was how long they maintained their Division One status. I talked to Gary [O’Kane], Jim [Nelson], Terence [McNaughton], and that was their biggest achievement in that time.
“Everyone looks at them getting to an All-Ireland final, and maybe should have bate Kilkenny in ’91, but they would look at their league status.
“Long-term, Antrim need to constantly be in Division One. It can’t just be me being selfish and saying we need to better ourselves for two or three years and then take a step forward.
“You have to look at the generation of Antrim hurlers coming, they need to be in the top tier the whole time, like the team of the ‘90s and noughties.”
A five-month wait to capitalise on the momentum of their Joe McDonagh Cup success was longer than they would have liked, but the layoff rustiness will not be theirs exclusively.
Clare, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin await and while Gleeson admits he would in some ways have preferred an extra week’s preparation, the lure of those games evened the debate out.
“Ideally we would have liked the four-week run-in. The bonus side of that is we get to play the five games. If it went geographical with the structure, I think it would have taken away some of the opportunity for us to test ourselves.
“Wexford, Clare and Kilkenny would probably have been out of the mix for us. It’s a double-edged sword. My own personal preference would have been the four-week lead-in, but it’s materialised the other way.”
They enter an arena in which mistakes will be severely punished, not least with the irrepressible Tony Kelly around the place in west Belfast this weekend.
Antrim have strived to return to Division 1B since they were relegated in 2018, and Gleeson – who will be without newboy Seann Elliott with a broken thumb – says they cannot afford a high error count.
“It’s the split seconds. It’s nothing else only the split seconds. If you’ve a ball-handling mistake in 2A, you might the chance to recover it.
“At this level, ball-handling errors lead to turnovers, teams being put on the back foot and usually, if you look at the statistics, a really high amount of scores come out of that area.”