SUNDAY’S clash with Clare will be a baptism of fire as Antrim get back to mixing with the big boys – but a difference in mentality could work in the Saffrons’ favour at Corrigan Park.
That is the view of former Banner star Ollie Baker, a man who is also familiar with the lay of the land in Antrim having served as part of Dinny Cahill’s management team back in 2011.
Coming off the back of an impressive 2020 that saw them earn promotion back to Division One as well as capturing the Joe McDonagh Cup, Darren Gleeson’s men know they are heading for a massive step up.
The last time they played at this level Antrim dropped straight back down after losing a relegation play-off to Laois, and Baker feels they have to maximise any opportunity to get points on the board in their search for survival – starting on Sunday.
“The peaks and troughs Antrim have had show what incredibly hard work it is to stay at the upper end,” said the two-time All-Ireland winner.
“If you take your eye off the ball or something doesn’t go your way, suddenly you’re down and it takes so much energy to get back up again, so the first game will set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
“Staying where they are will be their focus for the year because it will show them where they are. They’re not going to be favourites in any game but look at even Clare going up there this weekend.
“Same as Antrim, they’ve no competitive games played so they’re working off an even base, nobody’s coming in off a club championship.
“We know from last year that Antrim are very organised, very process driven, it’s not the old hurling of hit her up the field and see what happens. There’s a plan, there’s a structure. If Clare go up there with any distractions in their mind at all, they could be in trouble.
“Antrim should feel confident. They are going to treat this like a Championship game where Clare are preparing for a Championship, so those two different mindsets mean Antrim should be relishing the opportunity up against the big guys.”
Looking at his own county, managed by former team-mate Brian Lohan, Baker doesn’t believe the internal politics that have commanded so many column inches in recent months will have any bearing when the team runs out in west Belfast.
“I’d be very confident Brian and his management team would have distanced themselves completely from that… that’s something going on in the background.
“"They’ve had a very successful launch of Club Clare which shows there is a huge level of support for Brian and what he’s trying to do, and that comes from all sectors of the hurling community down there.
“What goes on in the boardroom shouldn’t filter down to the players and if it does, they’re a beaten docket already. But this isn’t something where there is dissent among the players, this is something far bigger than the Clare senior team.
“There are issues there just coming to the boil now but have been ongoing for maybe a decade now at this stage. That just has to run its course, and I’m sure the lads will just be getting on with it.”