There would have been something more romantic in Neil McManus finishing his time in a Saffron jersey with silverware in hand, but the reality of that is it would have meant his final season was spent where the Antrim hurlers don’t want to be.
Instead, his last game turned out to be a de facto Leinster Championship relegation play-off in Mullingar against Westmeath but that meant a season at the highest level – and another to come – rather than a Division 2A or Joe McDonagh win signalling the ascent of a yo-yo familiar to Antrim hurling.
So, while Antrim manager Darren Gleeson – and certainly McManus himself – would have wanted more, the Cushendall man could count his swansong season a success with Championship survival following the same in the League.
The news of McManus’s retirement after 17 seasons saw the old “he would be picked for any county in the country” cliché dusted down but it did him – and Antrim – a disservice. He would have walked on to any county team at any time, and his own was lucky to have him.
This year was his and Antrim’s first crack at a full Leinster round robin campaign, having missed out due its suspension during Covid and then relegation to the Joe McDonagh Cup.
The experience was much like what happened in the League, but in better weather, with mistakes ruthlessly punished – Kilkenny scoring 5-31 at Corrigan Park – and switching off for periods – giving themselves too much to do after a sluggish start at Chadwicks Wexford Park – illustrating again how little margin there is for error against higher level teams.
But, just as the League has done during Gleeson’s time, the Championship showed what Antrim can do when they get things right. They were the better the team against Dublin and should have come away from Corrigan – on a day when the weather was decidedly not better than during the League – with more than a draw.
And then, when they had to win in Mullingar, Antrim put the foot down in the second half to blow away Westmeath and stay with the big boys another year.
Limerick power to four-in-a-row
The biggest of those remains Limerick. For a distillation of why this Treaty team is one of the best the game has produced, you just need to look at 70 minutes (plus a bit extra) of action at Croke Park in July.
It wasn’t one game, but rather the second halves of both the semi-final win over Galway and the final victory against Kilkenny a 15 days later.
Both afternoons, John Kiely’s side headed down the tunnel at half-time behind. Both afternoons, huge questions were asked of Limerick. Both afternoons, they roared the answers.
Against Galway they trailed by a point, which would have felt like no deficit at all having been behind by six after 29 minutes after chasing maroon shadows for much of that time. Between then and the end Galway added six points to finish on 1-18. Limerick scored 1-18 to win by nine.
In the final against Kilkenny they were losing by three points but the attritional nature of the game, played in wind and rain making a cameo appearance from the old September slot, made those three points feel like a lot more. Limerick had only managed to score nine themselves. By the end those nine points would be Limerick’s winning margin. Twenty second half scores flew over the Kilkenny bar as the Cats were crushed, managing just 1-6 themselves. And now Limerick drive for five. It will take an awful lot for any team to stand in the road and stop them.
They’ll begin their 2024 campaign with the defence of their League title and start that at home to Antrim.
In spring 2023 Antrim won the Division One match they really needed to – against Laois – to ensure they head into their fourth consecutive season in the top tier of the League but will have to pull off a shock or three to stay there with the reorganisation of the NHL meaning the top table will sit just seven in 2025.
A top-three finish is required to guarantee that and in a group containing Limerick, Tipperary and Galway it would be a stunner if the Saffrons pull that off, even with the last two mentioned sides, as well as Dublin, travelling to Corrigan Park.
The restructuring that creates a higher level of quality in the second tier will at least take the likely relegation play-off feel away from another trip to Westmeath to face the other team in the group.
Monaghan and Cavan claim titles
Bringing inter-county silverware to Ulster in 2023 was left to neighbours Monaghan and Cavan.
The Farneymen did it in the Championship, beating Lancashire in the Lory Meagher Cup final.
Donegal lost the Nickey Rackard decider to Wicklow by two points, while Derry did the same in the Christy Ring final against Meath.
Between Antrim’s survival in the top tier and Cavan’s Division 3B final win over Leitrim, the League generally brought disappointment for Ulster teams. Down survived in Division 2A but did so at the expense of Derry, who immediately returned to Division 2B after last year’s promotion. They’ll be replaced in the higher Division by Meath, who beat Donegal in the Division 2B final, while neither Armagh nor Monaghan could make it out of Division 3A and Fermanagh were relegated after one season at that level, replaced by their Breffni neighbours.
Cavan’s league efforts next year, as well as Fermanagh’s, Louth’s, Leitrim’s and Longford’s, were set to be rendered meaningless with the GAA intent on removing them from the League from 2025 and redirecting money previously spent on preparing county teams at the start of the year to grassroots development.
However, the backlash, led by the players who take every bit as much pride in representing their counties as anyone from Limerick or Kilkenny or Antrim, proved successful in scuppering the move – for now at least.