Hurling & Camogie

Antrim County Focus: Paddy Burke appreciating the hard yards and ready to raise the bar in Antrim

Paddy Burke in action against Galway's Jarlath Mannion during last month's Walsh Cup Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Paddy Burke in action against Galway's Jarlath Mannion during last month's Walsh Cup Picture: Seamus Loughran.

YOU can’t beat a pre-season with a purpose. Paddy Burke recalls many pre-season sessions of years gone by that probably didn’t make a lot of sense. You just kept running. And running and running - and nobody asked any questions.

No matter how hard or long they ran, the southern teams usually had Antrim's number.

For a long time, Burke couldn’t work it out.

Antrim’s full-time strength and conditioning coach Brendan Murphy has opened a whole new world to the Cushendall defender.

Now he gets it.

Still, pre-season remains as tough as ever.

“I don’t know if pre-season gets harder but it certainly doesn’t get easier,” smiles Burke, who is earmarked for the full-back role in the Antrim team this season.

“You don’t get used to it – it’s tough, mentally and physically, every time you go through it. You don’t get a massive off-season, but you learn to keep yourself ticking over and it puts you in a far better place come pre-season. There’s nothing worse when you’ve taken a month or two months off.

“At the time you’re questioning why you’re doing it all. Nearly every night, you’re doing your runs and your physical work but when it’s done and you come out the other side of it you feel in a great place. There’s nothing worse trying to play a hurling match when you’re not fit. You need to be fit to play at this level.”

Brendan Murphy’s sessions are educational as much as anything else.

A Newry native, Murphy has been Antrim GAA’s resident S&C coach for past few seasons. Before that, he worked with Canada’s cycling team and helped prepare them for the Olympic Games in Rio and later spent time in Japan developing high performance programmes for their cycling athletes.

He also has a wealth of GAA experience having worked with Down GAA and Bryansford.

Figures like Murphy play an immeasurable, if sometimes invisible, role in raising standards in elite sport.

“When you get to the pitch you don’t know what Brendan has in store for you,” Burke adds. “But he explains the stuff to you; you’re not just mindlessly running and sprinting, so that helps and you know why you’re doing a certain thing.”

On a national level, the Antrim hurlers are undoubtedly closing the gap.

For years, county teams put their faith in managers unveiling a magic wand on match-day and believed that a changing room speech straight out of Any Given Sunday could do the trick.

“Years ago, when you were playing for underage teams or minor teams, you’d come up against the top teams and you’d come away thinking how so much more physical they were compared to us, and that was at the younger ages.

“But those teams had been doing that sort of (S&C) stuff, it was always part of their programme. With us, it wasn’t a compulsory thing. Everybody was given a programme…

“Nowadays, teams have taken it to a whole new level. It definitely stands to you and when you do it, you can compete physically – and that’s before the hurling even comes into it.

“You can see in teams where they have started that wee bit earlier in development squads – not even size-wise, but just how athletic they are, how they run and move.

“We probably would have done a wee bit at U16 and in school, doing circuits and that type of thing. When Terence McNaughton took us at the club he got Tommy Stevenson and Sean Delargy in.

“It was more circuit-based and things you could do at home. That was probably the start of it. You used to do it in the winter, do a block for a month or two and you didn’t do it again until the next winter.

“When I got into the senior team I saw what other players were doing and you started doing it throughout the year. Then Brendan really brought it to a new level.

“Before that, we wouldn’t have had a lot of structure to it. Brendan’s value to the panel and Antrim as a whole is unbelievable, especially with the youth’s athletic development because he’s so knowledgeable.”

It’s the sign of the times that collective training starts at 7pm but the entire Antrim squad will already be in Jordanstown an hour earlier to do their “activation sessions” before their warm-up.

Every single thing that Darren Gleeson’s players are doing is an effort to level the playing field. Game after game, they made a gallant stab at last year’s National League Division 1B campaign.

The fact that Antrim lost all five games would be a desperately crude measure of the gains they made last spring.

They suffered narrow losses to Kilkenny (a), Dublin (h) and Waterford (h). Their away defeat to Laois was the arguably the low point of what started out very encouragingly down in Nowlan Park, while the Tipperary game at the end of Division 1B was a 'dead rubber'.

In his post-match briefings, Gleeson hated the soft-ball questions and how luckless they were against Kilkenny and twice in Corrigan Park against Waterford and Dublin.

After three years in the job, moral victories amounted to nothing tangible.

When they needed to produce the goods to preserve their Division 1B status, they eased to an impressive relegation/promotion play-off win over Offaly in Navan.

A couple of months later, Antrim banked their second Joe McDonagh title after a sweaty-palmed finished against Kerry at Croke Park – and longed for a proper crack at the Leinster round robin series.

With last year’s All-Ireland beaten finalists Kilkenny rolling into west Belfast on Saturday afternoon, Antrim hurling feels like it’s in a good head space.

They feel like a regular member of Division One and they can look forward to a five-game Leinster Championship run come April and May.

But what’s new about Antrim in 2023?

Well, they’ll have a new full-back for starters in Paddy Burke.

No stranger to the role, the 27-year-old Ruairi Og man has usually been preferred at number five or six for his county.

“Personally, I don’t mind too much,” he says.

“I played most of the year at full-back for Cushendall and I’ve played a lot there through juvenile. At full-back, it’s almost like a mini battle with you and your man – him trying to lose you and you trying to read the ball.

“It’s a game within a game, which is enjoyable. But the way it is now you nearly see as much ball at full-back with short puck-outs and teams using their inside line a lot more. You’re encouraging all your defenders to be an option to accept the ball, it’s not like it was years ago where you mightn’t have the ball in your hand for the whole game.

“A few years ago I definitely would have preferred the half-back line but during the club season and so far with Antrim I’ve seen nearly as much ball at full-back as I would in the half-back line.”

As he approaches his eighth campaign with Antrim, Burke’s motivation to raise the bar in Antrim has never been higher. What’s enhanced his enthusiasm for the hard yards is the influx of new players.

Loughgiel’s Paul Boyle, Rian McMullan and Enda Og McGarry, Rossa’s Eoin Trainor, Caolan McKernan of Sarsfields and Ballycastle’s Tiernan Smyth and Seamus McAuley have added a freshness to the panel and, in Burke’s eyes, serious competition for places in the starting line-up.

“The attitude of the young players has been unbelievable – the likes of Paul [Boyle] and Caolan [McKernan] and Eoin Trainor from Rossa.

“You’ve seen young players come in in the past and they just liked being part of an Antrim squad – but the ones that have come in are really driving it on.

“That gives us an unbelievable buzz. They are mad keen to learn. They’re actively seeking you out and asking you questions.

“They’d ask you anything from gym work to what they should be doing away from training, what extra would we be doing. A lot of the stuff they ask is scenario-based: ‘If I find myself in this position, what would you do here?’

“I’d be marking Rian McMullan a few times in training and he would be asking me what type of movement is hard to mark, all those things. They’ve all come in with that same attitude and drive to not just be part of the squad but maximise their own potential.”

Burke is also part of a core group of players that have been involved in the senior set-up for “the best part of a decade” – but finally have a good clear eye on the road in front of them.

“Neil [McManus] has obviously been there and is probably in his second or third squad.

“People like Conor McCann, Clarkey [Ciaran Clarke], Eoghan Campbell, Stephen Rooney, Niall McKenna and even Ryan Elliott – we’ve been there for a few years and seen the change around. You can add big Gerard Walsh, James McNaughton...

“We’ve been committed for the right reasons, trying to drive it on, even when results weren’t good and it wasn’t that attractive to be playing for Antrim, that same group was always there.

“You were committed just as much as anybody, you were putting in the same time and effort but not seeing any joy or return for that effort, you were losing games, getting annoyed and wondering where you were going.

“So, to be where we are at the minute and competing at this level, and now in our third year in Division One, is unbelievable.”

Nobody is kidding themselves of the steep gradient ahead of them – but the Antrim hurlers are not blindly running in the dark any more.

Antrim’s NHL fixtures:

Sat Feb 4: Antrim v Kilkenny (Corrigan Park, 2pm)

Sun Feb 12: Dublin v Antrim (Parnell Park, 3.30pm)

Sun Feb 26: Waterford v Antrim (Faher Field, 1pm)

Sun March 12: Antrim v Laois (Corrigan Park, 1pm)

Sun March 19: Antrim v Tipperary (Corrigan Park, 1.45pm)


CLOSING the gap in top flight hurling is always the toughest of asks for the likes of an Antrim or a Laois. And it’s hard to get away from the prospect of the pair fighting it out to avoid a relegation play-off at the end of their respective Division 1B campaign.

Last year’s League table mightn’t suggest it, but Antrim are closing the gap. But it’s how they turn those couple of point defeats into a couple of point victories. They should have taken points off Kilkenny, Waterford and Dublin but finished on the losing end each time.

A year on from those bitter experiences, Darren Gleeson would be hoping his players will have a deeper appreciation of the finer margins of Division 1B. The manager’s hand isn’t helped by the absence of injured duo Conor McCann and Ciaran Clarke – one a fantastic ball winner and goal-getter, the other, a heavy scorer. Domhnall Nugent and Aaron Crawford are also on the injury list.

Ryan McCambridge and Mattie Donnelly have since retired from inter-county duty while David Kearney is in Australia. But Niall McKenna is fit again and is a dirty ball-winning specialist along the three-quarters they sorely need.

Neil McManus’s pursuit of excellence remains as bright and as daring as ever and he continues to lead this Antrim team. His Cushendall club-mates Paddy Burke and Eoghan Campbell provide a strong defensive spine, Joe Maskey proved his worth in midfield last season and Gleeson will be able to call upon some of the Dunloy contingent for Saturday’s opener against Kilkenny. You can draw a line through the Walsh Cup defeats.

Antrim are much better than those results. One big result in this League campaign could transform them. And they’re getting closer too.

Paul Boyle of Loughgiel will be pushing for game-time during the NHL Picture: Seamus Loughran
Paul Boyle of Loughgiel will be pushing for game-time during the NHL Picture: Seamus Loughran