Recharged Antrim hurlers face a tough assignment against Wexford
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim v Wexford (Today, Corrigan Park, 3pm)
ALL of a sudden there is absolutely nothing romantic about this journey for Antrim. Dublin was one hell of a wake-up call.
If it wasn’t for goalkeeper Ryan Elliott having one of those daft days where he was catching flies and denying the Dubs roughly six goals in Parnell Park a fortnight ago, the alarm bells would have been ringing in the management and players’ ears.
Who knows, perhaps they are ringing.
As it turned out, Antrim miraculously escaped from the north Dublin venue with an eight-point defeat.
It was the kind of performance that showed up every pockmark that Antrim has in their armour – the kind of pockmarks you can comfortably disguise at Joe McDonagh level.
Darren Gleeson is a smart man. He knows that with every top flight encounter it’s akin to pitching a skilled welterweight in with a fully-fledged middleweight.
Not only fully-fledged but savvy middleweights.
For the promoted team in Division One, the new environment is an endurance test.
They made every edge that comes from an unbeaten year in hurling’s lower rung count in their Division 1B opener against Clare on May 9.
It helped that Clare were already out of sorts before making the arduous journey to west Belfast.
It helped that Brian Lohan’s men didn’t have that extra few metres to play with like they normally do in Cusack Park or Thurles, as John Conlon alluded to after the Banner men’s two-point defeat in Corrigan Park.
The cards were stacked in Antrim’s favour. Nevertheless, they didn’t panic after a difficult opening period and they got in Clare’s faces, they hunted in packs for breaks and had a nice spread of scores, including a 1-11 haul from Ciaran Clarke.
Antrim were fresh and confident for the opening stages of Division One, and put up stout resistance against Kilkenny a week later before the Cats pulled away in the final quarter.
But the Dublin fixture was always going to be approached with a degree of trepidation. A third game on the bounce was simply too much for this Antrim team.
“Obviously I wasn’t happy coming away from the Dublin game,” Gleeson said, “but when you read people saying three games in three weeks, it was actually three games in 13 days. It wasn’t 21 days.”
But the Tipperary man was quick to shoulder his responsibility as manager by stating that they should have rotated more for the Dublin match.
Apart from Domhnall Nugent coming in for Conor McCann at full-forward, there wasn’t a lot of rotation in Parnell Park.
Of course, there is a certain amount of being wise after the event.
“I think we should have used the squad a bit more going into the Dublin game,” Gleeson acknowledged.
“I suppose we were comfortable with what people were doing.”
Enjoying a weekend away from the rigours of Division One was undoubtedly medicinal as a re-charged Antrim prepare for the visit of Wexford to Corrigan Park this afternoon.
The Conor McGurk run-out against Down last Friday night was also an ideal platform for some on the fringes to put their hands up for selection this afternoon.
And when you look at the line-up to face Wexford, Conor Johnston of St John’s and Eoin O’Neill of Dunloy have forced their way into the attack.
Eight or nine months ago, you could close your eyes and guess the Antrim starting line-up. Possession of the jersey was ten-tenths of the law. The team was unbeaten, flying and generally left untouched.
Today’s team-sheet looks decidedly fidgety. The management team appear to be guarding their cards close to their collective chests, with no Conor McCann or Nugent named in the full-forward line.
Neil McManus, named at 12, is likely to be the given the ball-winning duties at the edge of the square while the more mobile James McNaughton has been moved to midfield.
Interestingly, the Loughgiel man was bottled up at the tighter confines of Corrigan against Clare but if the starting team is to be believed he will have more grass in front of him than the last day.
But you just feel there are two or three late changes happening to the announced team.
Wexford will arrive at the Whiterock Road venue similar to under-fire Clare. Pressure is building on the mercurial Davy Fitzgerald.
That said, there is always a war cabinet feel to Fitzy’s teams where they're battling more than just their opponents.
Since toppling Kilkenny in the memorable 2019 Leinster decider, they threw away an All-Ireland semi-final to Tipperary, and haven’t done much since.
And yet they are a squad of players laced with real quality. If Antrim can contain the penetrative runs of Rory O’Connor and Conor Hearne and can break even with target man Conor McDonald, the home has a chance of securing their Division One status with a game to spare.
That would be some achievement, but a desperately tough ask for the Saffrons today.
Antrim (NHL v Wexford): R Elliott; D McMullan, G Walsh, S Rooney, E Campbell, P Burke, J Maskey, K Molloy, J McNaughton, N McKenna, E O'Neill, N McManus, D McCloskey, C Johnston, C Cunning Subs: P McMullan, M Donnelly, A Crawford, P Duffin, R McGarry, A O'Brien, Ciaran Johnston, R McCambridge, C Bohill, C Clarke, S Shannon