Youthful spring in Loughgiel Shamrocks' step ahead of Antrim SHC opener against St Enda's
LOUGHGIEL Shamrocks boss Hugh McCann is confident that they will be better prepared for a crack at this year's Antrim SHC having drafted in a host of young players from their back-to-back minor-winning team.
The Shamrocks open their account in Group One against St Enda's, Glengormley this evening on the Hightown Road (7.15pm), while Rossa host Ballycastle.
In Group Two, defending champions Dunloy, aiming for three-in-a-row, host rivals Cushendall while St John's travel to Tir na nOg Randalstown.
Still sitting at the top of the roll of honour list with 20 titles, the Shamrocks haven't won the Volunteer Cup since 2016 and finished runners-up in 2018 and 2020.
Due to the condensed nature of last season's five-week championship, Loughgiel looked a tired team in the decider against Dunloy who eased to back-to-back titles with seven points to spare in Ballycastle.
McCann felt their epic semi-final win over St John's, that needed extra-time to separate them, took its toll on some of the older members of the Loughgiel squad.
“There were some great matches in the championship last year. I suppose we were beaten and then came back from the dead against St John's – and we had the big man [Domhnall] Nugent doing his thing with one arm,” said McCann.
“Was it enjoyable? From a manager's point of view, no. From a spectators' point of view, it must have been great entertainment.
“It was a highly intense game and we only had a week to prepare for the final. I suppose the age profile of our team last year probably took them longer to recover. I don't think a week was fair between the semi-final and final. We needed an extra week because you were coming down off a high.
“Dunloy had younger lads and on the Tuesday night after the St John's game we had seven or eight boys who couldn't train because they were carrying knocks while Dunloy, on the same night, had seven or eight out playing intermediate [football] championship. That's the truth of it.
“They were physically better than us. Coming into the final Dunloy were fresher and we weren't. And fair play to them. Whether that came down to preparation or age profile, or both, who knows.
“This year I think we've prepared well and we've integrated a lot of youth during the league campaign especially without our county players.”
No fewer than seven minors have stepped into the senior ranks this season and have been road-tested in some key challenge games – including St Enda's Ballyboden (Dublin), Castlecomer (Kilkenny), Kilmallock (Limerick).
COVID, as with most teams, brought its own challenges ahead of this season's eagerly awaited championship but Loughgiel have come out the other side in decent shape.
“At one stage I had upwards of 20 players who were either shielding or positive with COVID,” McCann explained. “That was a bit of a disruption but we worked our way through it. That's all you can do. The health and well-being of people was more important. Now we've a clean bill of health and we are raring to go.
McCann is assisted by ex-players Neil McGarry, Paul Gillan and DD Quinn this year as they prepare for round robin games against St Enda's, Ballycastle and O'Donovan Rossa.
“I feel good going into this championship,” McCann said.
“The players have trained hard and all the coaches that we have are excellent; they're all past players. No disrespect who was there before, I just think it's a fresh approach and the players feel that.”
The mercurial Liam Watson is finally out of encores while Joey Scullion, Shay Casey and Barney McAuley are no longer on the Shamrocks team-sheet.
McCann added: “I suppose with Loughgiel's history they are always there or thereabouts, but we were disappointed last year.
“When you get to a county final you want to win it. Looking around the rest of the teams, there are only a couple of points between any of them. Rossa looked fantastic last year and were probably unlucky to lose against Dunloy.
“St John's were very unlucky to lose against Loughgiel. Cushendall looked tired last year and I'd say they'll be out to avenge last year because they've some smashing hurlers and brought a few lads back in this year which will stand to them. So it promises to be a great championship again”