Hurling & Camogie

Antrim hurling and trying to break the glass ceiling

Antrim manager Darren Gleeson congratulates Kilkenny's Derek Lyng after their Leinster SHC meeting Picture Mark Marlow.
Antrim manager Darren Gleeson congratulates Kilkenny's Derek Lyng after their Leinster SHC meeting Picture Mark Marlow. Antrim manager Darren Gleeson congratulates Kilkenny's Derek Lyng after their Leinster SHC meeting Picture Mark Marlow.

Antrim are so close to hurling's big guns and still a country mile away as they stare at the game's glass ceiling. Brendan Crossan discusses Antrim's predicament with Terence McNaughton, Ronan Sheehan, Ollie Bellew and Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett...

“You grow up with your passions, generally. Every one of the kids that come through the gates of Corrigan Park hopefully will leave wanting to be a player on the field at some point in the future, and that’s the thought we’re trying to leave with them.” Antrim hurler Neil McManus (2021)

FOR the last couple of seasons, reporters that gravitated to Darren Gleeson for some post-match quotes could easily predict what he was going to say.

Scroll back through your emails, click on the last Antrim hurling report and cut and paste his post-match comments. They would invariably fit neatly into an unchanging narrative.

It’s been the same old story. Not closing out the deal when they’ve been in positions to do so.

These are the fine lines between winning, losing and drawing against the bluebloods of the south.

So close and yet a country mile away. In hurling terms, inches are like miles. Uphill, murderous miles.

As Antrim fell to Dublin in February’s NHL Division 1B encounter at Parnell Park, one Antrim hurler muttered: “Groundhog f***ing day” as he left the field.

The truncated Leinster SHC series during COVID was a write-off for Antrim. They’d give anything for a proper charge at the thing.

A Joe McDonagh title in 2022 and here they are: right where they want to be – slap, bang in the middle of a fully-fledged Leinster SHC round robin series.

Five games and absolutely no hiding place. Where every tiny blemish shows up on the Championship canvas.

Having sealed their Division One status for a fourth consecutive year under Gleeson, Antrim drew with Dublin their Leinster SHC opener at the end last month – a game they could so easily have won.

This was new, psychological terrain. When did the Antrim hurlers ever feel like it was a Championship point dropped against an established Division One team?

Dublin was without question Antrim’s best display across two halves of hurling this year and probably further back under Gleeson’s watch.

“I thought they showed what it meant to them, the emotive side of the game,” said Gleeson afterwards.

“Sometimes they pull on the Antrim jersey and they can’t really show that emotion, they’re not expected to show that it means something to them, but for this group Antrim, it means a lot to them.”

Everyone knew Antrim could hold their own at Corrigan Park. Could they do it in Wexford Park the following week?

No, was the short answer.

Their slow start absolutely killed them. They pulled it back to four points towards the end, missed a couple of gilt-edged goal chances too, but they rued their nightmare start that saw them trail by nine at the break.

“Rory O’Connor will never get as much room on a hurling pitch for the rest of his life as he did against Antrim,” says former Antrim hurler Terence McNaughton.

“We have to learn to hurl outside Corrigan Park too. We have to go to places like Wexford and say: ‘F*** Corrigan Park, we’re going to win in your own back garden,’ with the same energy and same drive they show at Corrigan. But you need quality, you need consistency…”

Kilkenny put 5-31 past them the next day. Gleeson called it a "mauling" and couldn’t think of any positives – not even the 3-20 they put on the Corrigan Park scoreboard.

Elite Championship hurling is a merciless game of snake and ladders, especially for a county like Antrim as they make the journey to Pearse Stadium to face Galway this weekend.

Already attention has turned to a very likely Championship relegation face-off with Westmeath in Mullingar on Sunday May 28.

“You could’ve predicted that at the start of the year,” McNaughton adds.

Don’t get McNaughton wrong. He firmly believes Gleeson is getting the most out of what he has at his disposal. The county board, he says, is stretching itself too – the squad spent a warm-weather training week in Portugal last month – and Saffron Business Forum continues to be “top notch” at pulling in money via their slick fundraising events.

“It’s not that Antrim haven’t improved because they most certainly have as you just need to look at the volume of their scores and where they’re getting them from and the quality of those scores,” says Down senior hurling boss Ronan Sheehan.

“Darren has done an absolutely fabulous job, but the challenge is the top six counties have progressed at an even greater rate. While Antrim are definitely improving, it doesn’t mean they’re closing the gap.

“And if the gap in hurling is only five per cent, you could be talking about a 10 or 12-point beating.”

Belfast is failing Antrim, according to McNaughton.

The Cushendall native remembers facing O’Donovan Rossa and St John’s in county finals during his playing days and “not knowing whether we were going to win or not”.

The Johnnies have reached countless championship semi-finals in recent seasons, but don’t look any nearer to going any further, let alone winning one.

In 2020 and ’21, Colly Murphy got a tune out of the Rossa hurlers who were desperately unlucky to lose a memorable semi-final to Dunloy before reaching the decider 12 months later – their first final appearance in 17 years - only to be easily turned over by Dunloy again.

“The truth is Belfast is letting us down,” McNaughton says. “We need to change the structures of Gaelfast. Belfast has too many clubs. There needs to be a school-club connection. I’m in no way knocking the Gaelfast coaches - I’m knocking the system.”

McNaughton has always been an advocate of splitting Belfast into, say, five hurling districts and trying to nurture that same kind of parochialism that can be found in small-ball heartlands of north Antrim.

For instance, one coach in Belfast said that within his street of eight or nine houses, there were kids playing Gaelic Games for four different clubs.

“You want everybody in that one area playing for that one juvenile team,” McNaughton says. “You need to bring the kids from the school to the club. If you bring a coach into a primary school in Belfast, there are maybe eight or nine clubs in it. The system doesn’t work.

“The ideal scenario is everybody in Turf Lodge plays for Turf Lodge; everybody in the Lower Falls plays for the Lower Falls. Then you target non-GAA families, so Seamus and Mary are going down to the Falls Park to watch wee Johnny playing for Turf Lodge with no GAA background, but you plant a seed and it grows.

“The club championship has been dominated by Loughgiel, Cushendall and Dunloy over the last 20 years. Belfast is still producing good hurlers but not enough of them.

“It’s the one place that has got the population to do this. For every 50 kids, you’ll get a real clinker of a hurler, whereas Belfast could get 20 clinker hurlers because there are thousands there…

“If you don’t have the school-club connection, you are wasting your time. If you’re in a school for an hour or two a week, you might as well take out the paints and let the kids do art because you’re not going to plant a seed in a kid in that time. It’s a waste of money.”

Gaelfast, however, has its tentacles in urban areas of Belfast where they haven't been before.

Ollie Bellew has praised Darren Gleeson
Ollie Bellew has praised Darren Gleeson Ollie Bellew has praised Darren Gleeson

Ollie Bellew is a St Gall’s man and is back coaching the Cavan hurlers.

He also coaches the Milltown club’s U15s and spent a couple of seasons with junior club Ardoyne Kickhams in more recent times.

He knows the urban terrain better than most.

He wasn’t too downhearted by Kilkenny’s thrashing of Antrim a couple of weeks ago at Corrigan Park.

Kilkenny can put 15 points on any other county in Ireland, bar Limerick, but we’re still mixing it with the top teams who are not distracted by other things; their hurlers are totally immersed in hurling, whereas our city players are distracted by football and other sports,” Bellew says.

“But what I’m hopeful about is over the last couple of years, Darren Gleeson has created an atmosphere in the county, a following has been built up – and a very youthful following too.

“Bringing children into games en masse is going to pay dividends because we’ve a really good young bunch in Dunloy at the minute and a really good minor team in Loughgiel that is making its way through.

“If we can get good structures around our U20 and minor teams, then we start the conveyor belt and so when they make the transition to the senior team, it’s seamless.

“They know the expectations and what the levels of commitment are. Once that work ethic gets instilled across our younger teams it’s then we can be looking at something really positive.

“But, we are as close to that glass ceiling as we can expect to be at the minute.”

In an interview with The Irish News, Antrim defender Paddy Burke insists that the hurlers are definitely making gains, aided in no small way by the astute work of full-time strength and conditioning coach Brendan Murphy.

Burke described Murphy’s contribution to Antrim GAA as “unbelievable” and senses that the younger players being fed into the senior team are also benefiting from the across-the-board S&C approach.

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

“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.

“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.”

Just a few weeks ago, the county board announced that work on their new state-of-the-art gym facilities at their Dunsilly base just outside Antrim town would be commencing, while the Casement Park rebuild finally appears to be edging closer.

Coaching heads like Darren Gleeson and Antrim underage coach Paudie Shivers can initiate cultural changes at inter-county level, and they will see incremental improvement over time, but there is no magic bullet.

In fact, there are so many structural issues that collide and serve only to make progress slower than they would like.

Kilkenny's Tom Phelan gets away from Antrim's Conal Bohill Picture Mark Marlow.
Kilkenny's Tom Phelan gets away from Antrim's Conal Bohill Picture Mark Marlow. Kilkenny's Tom Phelan gets away from Antrim's Conal Bohill Picture Mark Marlow.

Sheehan feels dual county status brings more problems to GAA players’ doors. Juggling codes, creating too many fixtures and not getting enough coaching in between.

“That creates a challenge because lads are being asked to play a football match on, say, a Monday night and a hurling match on a Wednesday night and another football match on a Friday night. Or vice-versa,” Sheehan explains.

“They get virtually no training or coaching and are playing match to match, going out of one squad and into another. That doesn’t happen among the counties at the top.

“For instance, in Clare, they play nine football games and nine hurling games. Now, they play all the cup competitions but up here in Ulster we’re obsessed with the volume of games and it isn’t improving the quality of our coaching or our games.

“We need to look at our fixture lists at times. Are we playing too many games? Are we not getting the opportunity to access the quality of coaching to raise standards?”

Sheehan’s cause-and-effect analysis also draws attention to the fact that neither Queen’s or Jordanstown are playing Fitzgibbon Cup and sees crowded fixture lists and squeezing coaching space as indirect consequences of not being able to expose players to a higher standard of hurling.

Of course, counties can touch lucky for a group of gifted hurlers coming along at the same time. It happened in Offaly during the 1980s and it "sustained them for 20 years", according to Sheehan.

The Faithful County later fell on hard times but are showing signs of recovery at U17 and U20 level having gone back to tending to their underage structures.

Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett has a certain empathy with the Antrim hurlers as his native Laois have travelled exactly the same road over the past couple of decades.

Last month, Antrim defeated Laois to preserve their Division One status while the latter fell to Westmeath in a play-off and dropped down to the lower division for the first time in over a decade.

“All those counties [Antrim, Westmeath, Carlow and Laois] get up so far, they get up to a peak in cycles, and then we go back down again,” says Plunkett, who is a consistent critic of Croke Park for their perceived lack of support for mid-to-lower tier hurling counties.

“Then we get halfway up the hill again and slide back down. Somebody needs to think that out. Why can’t we make a couple of extra steps? What is it? Maybe we simply don’t have enough quality players, maybe we don’t have enough strength in depth.”

And while Antrim’s Leinster SHC round robin this year has been one pockmarked by near-misses, Plunkett believes the Ulstermen are better placed than any other county just below hurling’s glass ceiling to make a real attempt to break it.

“This Antrim team probably only has a year or two to make the breakthrough because over a period of time players will lose the will to fight, lose their fight to prepare, especially when other things come into their lives,” he says.

“Often the development of facilities and teams go hand in hand, they re-energise one another. So I think Antrim hurling really needs to go after this opportunity because if they don’t they’re going to waste it.

“Can Antrim GAA have the best development plan in the whole bloody world, never mind in Ireland, for Antrim hurling?

“Can Antrim be different and radical here and nearly go ‘professional’ in terms of preparation for the next couple of years? Would they buy into that? Would the county board buy into that? More than anything else, would the Antrim clubs allow their players to go that way? Antrim hurling is at a crossroads: where they go next is going to be pretty crucial.”

Former Laois boss Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett believes Antrim are in a good place to make an impact at the top level Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Former Laois boss Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett believes Antrim are in a good place to make an impact at the top level Picture: Seamus Loughran. Former Laois boss Seamus 'Cheddar' Plunkett believes Antrim are in a good place to make an impact at the top level Picture: Seamus Loughran.