NEIL McManus may have stepped off the county stage back in June, but any suspicion that standards might slip have been blown out of the water as he leads Cushendall into Sunday’s Ulster final showdown with Slaughtneil.
The Ruairi Ogs talisman brought the curtain down on a 17-year Antrim career after helping the Saffrons secure their Division One and Leinster Championship spots for 2024.
However, where some might take life that little bit easier once county commitments disappear from the horizon, McManus only knows one way.
He was central as Cushendall claimed the Antrim crown for the first time since 2018, scoring a remarkable 4-9 in a group game against Loughgiel back in September before the same opponents were defeated in last month’s final.
And the 35-year-old was sensational as Brian Delargy’s men survived a huge Ulster semi-final scare against Portaferry, eventually prevailing after extra-time.
“It hasn’t changed at all for me,” he smiled.
“My approach to hurling since I first started playing senior for Cushendall, which is 20 years ago now, has been that it’s a lifestyle, and I absolutely love it.
“My week revolves around hurling, and I’m very lucky that at the minute it revolves around big games because for a long time a lot of the big games were inter-county, and that won’t be the case when the lads step out onto the field next year.
“That’ll be a change, but I’ve just continued on my training with the club, as Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke and Scott Walsh have. There’s been very little change to my routine from June really.”
And, at times against Portaferry, he looked head and shoulders above all others on the field.
McManus eventually finished up with 1-14 to his name at the Box-It Athletic Grounds, constantly carrying the fight to the Down champions even when it looked as though they were bound for a first provincial final in nine years.
But McManus had other ideas as Cushendall trailed by three deep into added time, lashing a free through a crowd of Portaferry bodies to send the game into extra-time. From there, the newly-minted Antrim kingpins didn’t look back.
“You’re only concentrating on what you can do, but you need some luck,” he said of that equalising free.
“You pick a spot where you think you’ve the best opportunity to get that ball into the net, you try and strike it as cleanly as you can, then hope your team-mates are flying in behind it in case there’s a rebound.
“It had to go in for us to stay in the championship, that’s the long and the short of it. We’re all very glad it did because our performance probably didn’t merit us getting that opportunity.
“Thankfully in extra-time we showed a different level of performance than we had shown in the opening hour.”
That Sunday in Armagh was just the latest in a long line of superb showings throughout McManus’s career, though he is quick to talk up the overall strength of character in this current Cushendall panel.
“It’s great to play well when your team needs you most.
“I’ve been really lucky throughout my career that, when I haven’t performed well, other people have stood up and filled the gap.
“It was different people against Portaferry than in the county final, then different again in the county semi-final. That’s a great place to be in, and hopefully it’ll be another new face this weekend that can help us get over the line.
“That’s the beauty of a team, and that’s why I love being part of this group.”