ANTRIM hurling manager Darren Gleeson has challenged the “false narratives” and negativity swirling around the camp and feels reinvigorated by the new leaders emerging among his 2024 squad.
Many column inches have been written around some established Dunloy hurlers taking time away from the inter-county scene, while Neil McManus’s retirement has left some people wondering where the Antrim seniors are at in the early throes of the new season.
While acknowledging the absenteeism and long injury list, Gleeson is full of optimism that his squad will be in much better shape as the weeks roll on.
With one club season ending and another inter-county campaign beginning for them over the last five seasons, Dunloy contingent Keelan Molloy, Nigel Elliott, Seaan Elliott and Ryan Elliott are taking a break.
Gleeson feels the seemingly constant focus on who’s not part of the Antrim panel at the minute is “very unfair” on those players, as well as the players who are currently part of the set-up.
“We have a fantastic selection of players from Dunloy - a fantastic selection of players from all the other clubs,” said the Tipp native, who is entering his fifth year as Antrim senior manager.
“It’s very unfair that the narrative and focus that is constantly on the Dunloy lads – very unfair given their huge commitment over the last few years, and I think it’s very unfair on the Dunloy lads that are in there now.
“There’s a false narrative out there. You’re in a building phase every year and you go at it again.”
Antrim have been ravaged by a host of injuries too – but for every absence Gleeson cites the number of new players that have put up their hand in pre-season.
“There’s real hard graft being put into our underage teams and by all those involved,” he said.
“I’m excited by the foundations that are being laid all the time – guys that are going to come in ready. You’ve St Killian’s, Cross & Passion, St Louis all producing really good teams, so there are green shoots everywhere.
“A lot of people focus on maybe a small transition period with Neil [McManus] going and boys who aren’t here at this time of the year and then there’s a worry [created].
“But it’s up to me to segregate the boys from that; everyone in the group knows what’s going on. They’re fighting for a place on the panel - and when we get over the League stages, we’ll nail down our panel for the Championship.”
Road-testing a high number of players, Antrim suffered a 27-point defeat to four-in-row All-Ireland champions Limerick at Semple Stadium last Sunday and host Dublin in their second Division 1B game at Corrigan Park this weekend.
“What I love about this group is the new leaders that are popping up. People like Rian McMullan has taken a central role, Aodhan O’Brien as well, Rory McCloskey… they’re grabbing a hold of it. Young Tiernan Smyth, obviously a talented outfield player, who has the ability and skillset of the modern goalkeeper to bring that to us. They’re grabbing it by the scruff of the neck.
“Eoin McFerran of Dunloy is a very talented guy with the small and big ball – Eoin got a bad shoulder injury in a challenge game against Waterford. Fred McCurry is an exciting guy, Joseph McLaughlin, Conor Boyd - they’re all showing great leadership.
“I genuinely think that people don’t understand what’s going on.”
Gleeson spent a huge part of his own sporting life playing for the Tipperary hurlers and knows the sacrifices that inter-county players make.
He also acknowledges that different players have different approaches to how much they play and cites the hullabaloo Conor Glass’s return to county action with Derry caused just six days after winning an All-Ireland Club title with Glen.
“The inter-county player is the one who is going for 12 months of the year,” Gleeson said.
“There are two narratives nearly out there where some people were giving out about Conor Glass and a couple of the Glen players back at it.
“Conor Glass wants to be back at it. Then you look at Ballyhale Shamrocks who’ve been on the road for the best part of 15 years with that group.
“I listened to Eoin Cody there saying that he was looking forward to getting a pre-season under his belt which he hadn’t done before. That’s just the drive in people.
“Look, it’s a mindset, a mentality. Some guys approach it differently and that’s fine.”
Ciaran Clarke, who missed over a season due to a serious knee injury, is in his “last phase of his rehab” and is “flying”.
Caolan and Daniel McKernan had minor procedures done and aren’t far away from returns.
St John’s defender Conal Bohill is a few weeks away while Enda Og McGarry, Eoin McFerran, James McNaughton, Paul Boyle, Seamus McAuley and Eoghan Campbell “are not far away” either.
Gerard Walsh and Michael Bradley could be back in March but Sarsfields Niall McKenna could be good to go for the Dublin game this weekend.
With another NHL rejig at the end of the season, there’s no relegation from Division 1A or 1B – but Gleeson is hoping Antrim can nick one of the berths for next year’s new-look Division One which means finishing in the top three or finishing fourth and winning a play-off with the corresponding team in 1A.
“People are saying Antrim don’t care about the League this year – that’s completely untrue.
“We have a great opportunity to get into the top seven next year. There are obviously three big hitters in our group this year – Limerick, Tipperary and Galway, and Dublin would be ranked next and then ourselves and Westmeath would be looked upon as the same.
“So, a wild result for either ourselves or Westmeath would make our game very interesting to be the seventh team in Division 1A next year. So, there’s a huge amount to play for. Our players are aware of that, and we’ll put out our strongest available team.
“I’m only interested in those available for selection and that’s who we have to focus on and we’ll depend on our S&C coaches to get as many people available to us week on week.”
On the prospect of returning to Corrigan Park on Sunday for the first time this year, the 2010 All-Ireland winner sounded a hugely upbeat note.
“I enjoy Corrigan,” said Gleeson.
“If you love Gaelic Games and you want to see passion on display, Corrigan Park is a fantastic place for it. The opportunities are there for the Gaels in Antrim this year to see top class inter-county hurling. You have Dublin coming on Sunday. Galway are coming and Tipperary are coming on St Patrick’s weekend.
“In the Championship, you’ll have Galway, Wexford and Carlow – last year’s Joe McDonagh winners – coming up.
“There’s a feast of hurling in front of people at Corrigan for the next three or four months. They can get a look at our younger players, get a look at our established players coming back in and they’ll give everything they have on the field. That’s what invigorates me and gets me up the road.
“Corrigan Park has been good to us. The St John’s club give us a serious welcome. These are exciting times. There’s good energy there with the footballers going well in Division Three. That’ll give the county a lift and hopefully we get support from the football people as well.”