Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Antrim's day in the sun well deserved

Antrim captain Neil McManus (left) and Arron Graffin in Cusack Park
Antrim captain Neil McManus (left) and Arron Graffin in Cusack Park

For the Antrim fans that made it down through the heart of Ireland last Sunday, the Championship did not begin with a crash, bang and wallop spectacular of high drama, but it was one of the most satisfying days they have enjoyed in recent years.

Leaving aside the baffling actions that led to Karl Stewart's red card – and nobody will be more disappointed about that than Stewart himself – this was a rare day when a team got what they deserved, Antrim beating Westmeath 3-18 to 2-13 in the Leinster Championship.

The day opened with a watery splash of sunshine that spoke of Championship summer.

Once located, Cusack Park in Mullingar is a humble venue for raising the curtain on a jamboree that eventually concludes in Croke Park in front of 82,000 paying customers and a television audience of over a million.

Yet, it is fitting that it should begin this way.

Fitting that you should have to struggle to find a stadium that is not marked by roadside signs, that does not register with a satellite navigation system and that some of the locals are blissfully unaware of when you stop at local filling stations to ask for directions.

A venue, let's not forget, where you can buy a ticket for a club draw in which the top prize is a gleaming new Massey Ferguson.

A venue that has a quirky-looking bust of legendary Gaelic games commentator Micháel O'Hehir set inside the perimeter wall, despite O'Hehir being born 50 miles away in Glasnevin.

Soon, and quicker than we will notice, the big games will be confined to the Big House in Dublin 3, with official Ireland getting gravy stains on their ties inside their corporate boxes. For now though, the true essence of Championship can be discovered among the backroads and byways.

Back to Sunday.

In the crowd were less than 80 Antrim fans. What a pity for those that missed out.

When they come to write the history books on hurling in the Glens and in the city of Belfast, the name of Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton will be a chapter title and subject.

For the last 30 years he has washed, worn and watched the Saffron jersey, and sired sons that continue the family name on the team sheets.

His conservative estimate would not even stretch to 60 Antrim fans present and given the service he has volunteered to his county, he could probably name each and every one of them in Mullingar.

Yet he believes the effort of this team deserves more.

His old line about "Looking out at the car park to see who would arrive at training" applied to both his playing days and his spell as joint manager with Woody McKinley. Things are different now.

His son Shane captured what life as an Antrim hurler had been like over the past number of years when he spoke this week of being able to cut the tension at training with a knife.

From first-hand experience, this writer recalls the dread some hurlers had last year of even the bus journey to Limerick after their defeat to Westmeath, knowing that things were going to be extremely awkward and they were heading for a hiding.

With his helmet off, the hair matted to his scalp and that beaming Hollywood smile of his turned up to full wattage, captain Neil McManus put it simply in his post-match remarks: "We are working really hard and the boys are trying their lamps out."

Now, Shane McNaughton admits that since he made his inter-county debut, they had only been kidding themselves with the amount of effort they put in.

Kevin Ryan's insistence that strength and conditioning is a lifelong project and not just a box to be ticked from November through to April and the clocks going back will be adhered to, although these things take time.

Are the best hurlers in Antrim currently on the Antrim team? No. But that could be said in plenty of county teams.

There is a footballer in Tyrone who stands head and shoulders above more vaunted and famous names in club matches, yet has no interest in the county scene.

Antrim football suffers a more acute version of this ailment.

Ryan might have been forced to pick a raw panel of youngsters and improvers. But they are there because they have a passion for hurling and for Antrim.

They deserve more than sniping from cynics when they will fall to inevitable defeat. They deserve a bigger audience.

And they are going to go out and get it.

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