Hurling & Camogie

Neil McManus bows out after an unforgettable journey with Antrim

Neil McManus has played his last game for Antrim
Neil McManus has played his last game for Antrim Neil McManus has played his last game for Antrim

“Neil McManus always wanted the ball, always wanted it. There was never a day he hid. When you needed somebody to do something, to get us over the line, he never hid. We should be thankful he was there. He’s left Antrim hurling better than he found it.” – Terence McNaughton

PEOPLE like Neil McManus don’t ever retire; they hurl forever. Or at least that’s the way it felt for the best part of two decades.

A constant on the Antrim team-sheet, it was impossible to imagine scanning the match programme and the Cushendall man not being listed.

He was the heartbeat, the totem, the hope. With McManus, there was always hope. To be that good, you need to love the game.

“I love the feeling of going up for a high ball. Whenever I’m watching a game, people are throwing ash very, very hard and somebody has the bravery and the skill and the timing to go up and pull that ball out of the sky.

“There is something special about that. You don’t get that in other sports – such a small ball and the danger that’s undertaken to be able to perform that skill, keeping your eyes open when sticks are breaking around you. It’s a mad thing, isn’t it? But there’s a beauty to it.

“It’s very hard to describe but when you watch some hurlers trap a ball, the way they off-load a ball, or they see a pass that nobody else sees before it’s played. Hurling is played at such pace – it’s unmatched in my opinion.”

A county career that was supposed to orbit the next millennium finally ended on a beautiful sunny day in Cusack Park, Mullingar last month.

As a kid growing up in the Glens, McManus dreamt of winning an All-Ireland.

His last game, as it turned out, was a relegation shoot-out with Westmeath on May 28 2023, which Antrim won at a canter, to preserve their Liam MacCarthy status for next season.

It was as joyous an occasion as you could imagine.

“I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve,” McManus says. “I absolutely didn’t but I did everything that was in my control. I don’t think there’s anyone in Kilkenny or Tipperary could have trained any harder or committed any more to it, but all you can do is control what you can control.”

Through the exhaustion and being able to get through the day in spite of a Grade 3C hamstring tear sustained against Kilkenny only three weeks earlier, McManus was elemental to Antrim’s special victory in Mullingar.

There were no cups, no podium appearances and no victory speeches afterwards but it would still be hard to overstate the sense of achievement in holding their hard-earned place in Leinster.

Despite being one of the fittest players on the Antrim panel, this was the right time to say goodbye.

With Antrim having built up an unassailable lead entering stoppage-time, Darren Gleeson substituted his leader.

Both manager and player embraced on the sidelines. They both knew it was the end. The rest of us merely suspected.

Hobbling off the field against Kilkenny at Corrigan Park might well have been McManus’s swansong, but he declared himself fit for Westmeath.

“I was just concentrated about being fit to play the game,” the 35-year-old says.

“I do think a lot of sport is mental as opposed to physical. I just feel if you’re going to do something, you can do it.

“Darren said we’d have a conversation the day before the match and if I was right, I’d play. I think he trusted me in that I wasn’t going to play unless I was right.

“I remember going up to the last session to Dunsilly on the Thursday evening knowing it would be my last one with Antrim.

“And going to the Westmeath match that morning, it was going to be the last time I’d be in the changing room with these players. You’re conscious of those things, I suppose.

“When I came off, I was very happy at that point because, obviously, that was a very important game for Antrim to really solidify the progress we had made.

“The way we played that day at times was impressive and showed what we're capable of. Obviously, Darren knew that would be my last game – the players wouldn’t have known. He was very happy for me that I was able to play and it was a nice note on which to leave. I’m thankful to Darren for that opportunity.”

McManus adds: “Antrim have really been transformed over the last few years. You don’t have to go back too far when we were in Division 2A and it didn’t look as if we were going to get out of it. So, it was probably the end of a mini journey for me.”

Alieen, his wife, had organised McManus’s family to come to Cusack Park as they all suspected this could be the last time they would see him wearing the saffron jersey.

“There were a few that made the journey from Cushendall to Mullingar. People like Donal and Patricia Kearney, who own the butcher’s shop in the village.

“Donal and Patricia have probably been at every Antrim match I’ve ever played in. They’ve just been everywhere. And when we had that famous U21 All-Ireland semi-final win over Wexford in 2013 under Kevin Ryan, there were about 10 Antrim fans there, and Donal and Patricia were two of them. I’ll miss those wee encounters after matches.”

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AS kids, Shane McNaughton and Neil McManus were always joined at the hip. You never saw one without the other.

The hurlers of Burt in Donegal had invited Terence McNaughton to take a training session. The Antrim Allstar remembers putting Shane and Neil into the passenger seat of his small van with one seat belt across the pair of them.

“I got Shane and Neil to demonstrate the drills that I wanted the Burt lads to do,” McNaughton says.

“I remember the Burt lads raving about these two kids, their touch and their striking.”

As a youngster, McManus remembers patting Ciaran McCambridge on the back after the 1999 county final win over Dunloy and the texture of the heavy cloth jersey which was soaking with sweat, and the kid wanting to experience the same.

By the mid-Noughties, McManus was part of one of the best minor teams to come out of Antrim. Arron Graffin, Eddie McCloskey, Shane McNaughton, Neal McAuley, Paul Shiels and Cormac Donnelly among them.

In both 2005 and ’06 they were as good as anything in the country but lost by small margins to Limerick and Galway in consecutive seasons.

The minor class of 05/06 would go on to backbone the Antrim seniors for a decade or more.

Antrim had more bad days than good, but McManus always shone like a beacon and you could find him anywhere from centre half-back to midfield to wing-forward to full-forward.

It was fitting that the last few years were the best Antrim hurling has experienced in a very long time.

The county board became a more professional set-up, Saffron Business Forum tapped into the corporate sector and Darren Gleeson and his backroom team raised the bar on the training field and in the gym.

“Growing up, I was the same as every other hurler – I wanted to win an All-Ireland. I came to the realisation that wouldn’t happen, but it can still happen.

“You’re never as far away from the top teams as you think and you’re never as clear as you think from the pack that’s chasing you.

“But I believed we could win an All-Ireland because, as minors, we travelled the length and breadth of Ireland with and were competitive everywhere we went. That team was so strong. We led the senior team for 10 years. That’s too long. Until we start bringing U15 and U17 players through on a more regular basis, only then will we see that at senior level.”

Neil McManus has been one of the best ambassadors for Antrim GAA
Neil McManus has been one of the best ambassadors for Antrim GAA Neil McManus has been one of the best ambassadors for Antrim GAA

Shane McNaughton’s last game for Cushendall was the All-Ireland final defeat to Na Piarsaigh in 2016. Soon afterwards, he headed to America and became an actor.

“Neil worked harder than anyone else and made himself the best,” his best friend says.

“I chat away to Neil about this but it’s how he does things, I’d use them as an inspiration in my own life – his work ethic and how he handles setbacks.

“He controls what he can control, he doesn’t get down about things. I remember he got a bad injury and you expect people to be down or sulk or go into themselves. I had never seen it once with Neil. He would look at what steps he’d have to take, and he’d go about it very diligently.”

McManus’s approach to sport was as simple as it was genius. You’d be a fool not to fully appreciate how preparation impacts performance. How fit you are, how strong you are and the importance of mindset for games.

“You could be three-quarters of the way there before you step onto the field,” he said in an interview with The Irish News in 2019.

In some ways, McManus manufactured his own greatness. He knew he wasn’t as gifted as some, but hard work transported him to a place that wouldn’t seem reachable to the vast majority of sportspeople.

“I’m the type of player who worked very hard and without that work-rate nothing else would have worked for me.

“I didn’t have the natural, God-given ability to the same extent that some did. I scored my first line ball for Antrim against Cork last year. It just took me 20 years where I felt confident of doing that.

“Those things were always just work-rate and repetition for me. I knew very early on that’s what would give me an advantage, because I love training, absolutely love training, and I feel like whenever I go on a field I don’t want to come off it.

“It’s the way we play the game. That bit of reckless abandon. People play fairly but it’s on the edge. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, people are being as physical as they can, as brave as they can be and they love playing for the place that they are from - that passion.

“We are so, so lucky to have that. Whenever you see hurling played, it’s a fantastic representation of our nation, culturally. Hurling is what people did hundreds of years ago to represent their parish, their clan.

“I love that bit of mythology, that pride of place, and that’s why the GAA need to protect that so much – you don’t go and play for somebody else because they’re better – play for where you’re from and the people you went to school with.

“I know I come from a strong hurling area, but I just think that’s sacrosanct. I’ve had some great days with Antrim and Cushendall but just coming off the field knowing that you’ve given everything for the man beside you, people you’ve grown up with, is hard to beat.”

Neil McManus was the man who was supposed to hurl forever. Always fetching balls up in Corrigan Park every Sunday and making the people behind the wire feel more alive for it.

Chest out down in Parnell Park and fearing absolutely nobody for club and county. Chasing lost causes and winning them. His unbelievable grit.

His voice cracking down in Tullamore in 2019 after an unforgettable performance against Offaly.

Antrim Gaels lost count of the last-gasp winners, hooks and blocks and catches, twisting left and right and hitting stitched leather blindly over either shoulder, and watching it sail between the posts.

In the mind's eye, everyone has a scrapbook moment of a day he pulled it out of the fire for Antrim or Cushendall.

You couldn't intimidate a player like him.

Every day he played, he was eight-out-of-ten or above. The older he got, the more scandalous his consistency levels became.

He just knew once he set foot on a hurling pitch he would affect the game.

When a hurling match reached fever pitch, McManus was always there. He wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

As Terence McNaughton says, "he never hid". In truth, he never really left a hurling field defeated.

You ask McNaughton to rank him, he shoots back: "Who's ahead of him?"

“If to be a good hurler was a cake, you need certain ingredients – skill, fitness, mental toughness, character, team-work – Neil McManus had all the ingredients," McNaughton says.

“To me, he is the full package. He is the ideal hurler. I say to our U15s, 'If you want to be a hurler, copy Neil McManus, study him' – and that’s the best compliment I can pay him.”

As he ponders the future, McManus says: “I’m really lucky to come from the club I come from because for one reason or another Cushendall has supplied the leaders of the Antrim team for the last 50 years.

“I always remember Terence McNaughton talking about Danny McNaughton playing for the county and he brought those standards back to Cushendall. And then the next wave came along of Terence McNaughton and James McNaughton came along and they were always the captains of the Antrim teams. And two of our leaders in the Antrim today are Eoghan Campbell and Paddy Burke – our captain and vice-captain.

“People like Arron Graffin inspired me – day after day. How he would prepare, how brave he was on the field, how injury would come at him and he’d always come back from that and perform unbelievably well without any training or match practice, which was testament to how he looked after himself.

“And growing up with Shane and his father, they were always there. Terence is just passion from the minute he gets up in the morning til he goes to bed at night. That’s what was passed onto me. I probably feel the same about the game.

“Aileen, my wife, was at one stage captain of the county camogie team and I was captain of the Antrim hurling team.

“The effort she would put in was no less than mine; absolutely committed to the cause and the effort she now puts into Dunloy camogie is exceptional.

“I think as I’ve got older I’ve become more conscious about those things. I can understand now the work my father [Hugh] put into our club and how that was so good for me, John and Maria, going down to the pitch. We’re thankful for what he did for the club. That kind of thing gives you a great head-start.

“But now, I’m looking forward to spending more time at home and will enjoy watching Antrim next year and I know they’ll give the fans some great days.

“What a privilege it was to play for Antrim for so long. It was a joy and the honour of my life.”

Neil McManus rarely dipped below an eight-out-of-10 Picture: Mal McCann.
Neil McManus rarely dipped below an eight-out-of-10 Picture: Mal McCann. Neil McManus rarely dipped below an eight-out-of-10 Picture: Mal McCann.