Tight turnaround is the price you pay for All-Ireland entry: Antrim's Neil McManus
NEIL McManus refused to criticise the seven-day turnaround the Antrim hurlers face as they prepare for an enticing All-Ireland quarter-final preliminary round clash with Cork at Corrigan Park on Saturday afternoon.
Darren Gleeson’s men captured the Joe McDonagh title at the expense of Kerry in a pulsating decider at Croke Park last weekend, with the big winners being their respective opponents Cork and Wexford.
Cork have been lying in wait for the McDonagh winners since May 22, while Wexford the runners-up. Both Cork and Wexford will be fancied to book their places in the last eight of the MacCarthy given the physical and emotional energy expended by both Antrim and Kerry last Saturday.
The Antrim physios will have a job on their hands patching up the Antrim squad – but McManus won’t be complaining about the tight time-frame between both Championship encounters.
“I actually think the set-up is brilliant, and it’s fantastic that the two Joe McDonagh finalists continue in the All Ireland series,” McManus said.
“If that’s the price you pay, the quick turnaround, then it’s well worth it. I’m all for it.
“It’s phenomenal Cork are coming to Corrigan Park this weekend. That is real hurling development for Antrim and is something badly needed, so I won’t be complaining about that.”
The Rebels suffered back-to-back defeats to eventual Munster champions Limerick and finalists Clare in their provincial round robin series, but bounced back to seal third spot with wins over Waterford and Tipperary.
Antrim, meanwhile, will probably feel in bonus territory having secured their second McDonagh crown in three seasons and winning promotion back into next season’s Leinster SHC round robin series.
“The prize was achieving our Liam MacCarthy status in the Leinster round robin next year,” McManus added.
“So that was a big part of last weekend. We are more than capable of playing Division One hurling as we have shown but Liam MacCarthy Championship hurling is something we’ve yet to prove ourselves in. Now we have the opportunity to do so.
“Cork are an incredible team. They got to an All-Ireland final last year – you don’t get to All-Ireland finals without having an incredible bunch of players and a group that is very, very ambitious.
“There is no doubt that Cork are that. I think everybody wrote them off when they lost their opening game in the round robin, but they’ve proven everybody wrong. I definitely think there’ll be a pep in their step when they come to Corrigan Park.”
McManus played his part in Antrim’s nail-biting one-point win over Kerry last weekend, firing over two first-half points and winning a crucial penalty that was expertly despatched by Ciaran Clarke.
But the Cushendall man believes they have plenty to improve upon after almost throwing away an 11-point advantage in the second half.
“It was a crazy, crazy 42 or 43 minutes that was played in the second half. Our level certainly wasn’t what it was in the first half but all credit to Kerry, they threw the kitchen sink at us.
“They were clinical in the second half. They had three goal chances and took them all. In the first half Ryan Elliott made a great save and we have him to thank.
“But I didn’t think we would lose the game at any stage,” he said.
“It was getting hairy but every time they landed a major, we replied. But we definitely didn’t bring the same intensity but in the moments when we really needed it, we came up with a score. But there’s a lot to improve on for the next day."
Two seasons ago, the Antrim hurlers didn’t get the chance to properly enjoy their debut McDonagh win due to COVID restrictions, but Saturday’s win made up for that.
“To get to enjoy the McDonagh win with our friends and our families was fantastic. At the end of the game I saw my wife and my father at pitch side and that will be a great memory. That is the most important bit of this because it’s our families who make the sacrifices so we can play at this level.