Antrim camogie aiming to build on recent successes: Maeve Kelly
ANTRIM Camogs seized their second chance this season and now they’re relishing seconds at the top table next year.
Attacking star Maeve Kelly, winning of an historic PwC player of the month award after scoring 1-5 in the Intermediate Final victory over Kilkenny, hopes that establishing a second team can boost the Saffrons in the future.
Antrim reached last year’s Intermediate decider, losing out to neighbours Down, but that was a competition without the usual second teams from the major camogie counties due to Covid-related restrictions.
With those sides back on the scene this year, the Ballycastle lady acknowledged that their All-Ireland triumph might have come sooner than they expected:
“I think so. We knew we had a strong team this year and we knew we had the skill and the players that could do it. But obviously it was our first All-Ireland campaign with the second teams in it. We knew it was going to be tough and we certainly didn’t get it any way easy, especially when we lost to Cork.”
That three-point away defeat during the group stages at the end of July proved invaluable, though, recalls Kelly:
“A lot of us would say that was the best thing that probably ever happened to us. We haven’t been beaten since then. We hadn’t developed any structure or game-plan, so having that defeat allowed us to look at the mistakes.
“We all sat down one night and talked it out. Everyone gave out their frustrations and what they felt. That really benefitted us more than anything, it brought us a lot closer as a team because everyone was able to share their opinions and iron out all the mistakes. We didn’t make many mistakes after that.”
As a trainee teacher at St Mary’s University College in Belfast, Kelly knows plenty about learning lessons. She accepts that Antrim might be given a few up at senior level in 2022, but is keen to gain top level experience:
“Definitely, when you watch the senior game after our game you can see the strength and power all those girls have. We do know we have a lot of improving to do, but we’re a young squad and everyone there is so determined and eager, they just can’t wait to get back at it. That is something for us to look forward to. It is going to be a challenge, it’s going to be tough, but you wouldn’t want it any other way.
“When you’re younger you want to be playing with the best, you want to be the best camogie player you can be and the only way you’re going to do that is move up to the big league. It’s going to be a test. We’re going to have to test ourselves.
“We might take our beatings but it’ll definitely, hopefully, be worth it. It will improve all of us as camogie players and hopefully encourage everyone in Antrim to get out, keep pushing, and build a really good senior squad over the next few years.”
Part of that process will involve setting up a second side, which can help bring through young Saffron talent.
Antrim won another All-Ireland Minor B title in a final replay at the weekend, the third such success in five years, and Kelly wants to make the most of the players coming through:
“I was involved in the 2017 and 2018 squads that won, then we were moved up to the ‘A’ Division the next year. It’s really important that we keep developing, keep building.
“I think we’re going to get a second team going just to give those minors a platform to move, transition into senior. That’s really important - we need a strong youth coming behind us.
“If we want to keep this momentum going, keep progressing and being successful, we do need those younger players getting a lot of experience. They need to build their strength, be part of a county squad, and then hopefully they can filter into our [senior] squad over the next few years and help us to grow.”
Antrim will replace Offally in the Senior Championship next year. The Faithful county lost the relegation play-off to Down, who performed creditably on their return to the senior competition, including one-point losses to Waterford and Dublin. This means Ulster will have two represenatives in the top tier of the camogie championship in 2022.
The Ulster rivals are a good benchmark for Antrim, having beaten them by two points in this year’s Division Two League Final and then by only one in the Ulster Championship Final.
This season has clearly been a marked improvement after losing last year’s Intermediate Final by 12 points to Down, who set the example for Antrim to follow, acknowledges Kelly:
“It was a strange campaign - all the second teams weren’t in the All-Ireland and we just seemed to get there. With Covid it was a strange run to the final. Obviously it wasn’t the outcome we wanted and Down definitely deserved the win.
“We acknowledged that Down had been preparing for it for the past couple of years whereas we had only sort of gathered ourselves over the past year, got a strong squad, got people out to play for Antrim.
“We appreciated we had a few years to get ourselves up and running whereas they had been going at it for a good couple of years.
“It was hard to dust yourself down after a big loss like that, when you put so much into it - but it definitely worked out this year and we got what we wanted.”
Antrim are now inspirations themselves, as Kelly has noted from personal experience: “I was in schools this week, and I was going to schools that would not necessarily play sport, where they would not play camogie and where the culture is more boy-dominated so I think it is really important for those girls to have role models.
“Our success in Antrim has definitely raised all of our profile it’s important for those girls to see what they can achieve, it is very inspiring for them.
“Even for us, role models are so important, seeing the likes of the Meath girls in Gaelic football, they are role models for us. We are going to be doing the same thing next year that they did this year, we are stepping up into Division one and they did that and won the whole thing.
“It is important for all sports to have role models, athletics, rowing, boxing; we need female role models to get more exposure and to help encourage female sport across Ireland. It is very important that women’s success is seen and heard.”