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Antrim are eager for success on the greatest stage

By Declan Bogue

Chris O'Connell's devotion to the cause of Antrim hurling truly knows no bounds. A couple of weeks ago he played an inspirational role in their tragically unfortunate last-gasp loss to Offaly in the All-Ireland qualifiers, and tonight he will be on the Athletic Grounds sidelines in his role as selector to Kevin Ryan's Under-21 team as they take on Down in the Ulster final (throw-in 7.30pm).

After a long season with the county seniors however, O'Connell has had to devote some time to his club, Loughgiel Shamrocks, as they begin their first full season under the new management of Joe McGurk and his backroom team, after All-Ireland winning manager PJ O'Mullan decided to take a sabbatical.

While Stephen McAree's Ardsmen wait in the final, Antrim will have fond recent memories of hurling at this level.

Last year they made the All-Ireland final by defeating a Wexford team who counted Conor McDonald and Lee Chin amongst their number – in the semi-final.

A heavy defeat to Clare in the final might have slightly dampened the year, but that loss should be borne in the context of the outrageous number of All-Ireland champions who played for the Banner that day.

From last year's squad, goalkeeper Ger Dixon, Matthew Donnelly, Tiernan Coyle and Christopher McGuinness are gone.

Last year, attracting numbers to training before the Wexford win had been a problem, but one that seems to be behind them as O'Connell enthuses: "Everybody who is there wants to work hard and pull the whole thing forward. That comes from having a taste of the big time last year in getting to an All-Ireland final so they are going to try and replicate that. We just have to step up and do it again.

He continued: "It's all going to come down to a lot of hard work and good application.

"Hopefully we can do it and bring it to the table, and try to push the whole thing forward."

They face a Down side managed by McAree, who won the Ulster minor Championship in 2012.

As a selector with the senior team, McAree has a lot of experience on his side and will look to the likes of the Nicholson brothers Scott and Brett, along with Caolan Bailie and Ryan Brannigan to deliver a big performance.

However, O'Connell will certainly hope to frustrate the Nicholsons' thirst for goals with Antrim well-stocked with talented goalkeepers.

"Throughout the year they had a few fellas in; Conor McAlister and Colin Hayden from Cushendall and last week they had Ciaran Butler from Ballycastle in," reveals O'Connell.

"He is the county minor goalkeeper. They are all in there and showing well throughout the year.

"I know Ciaran has the All-Ireland minor quarter-final this weekend so I'm not sure of his availability, but we will find out closer to the time."

Belfast Telegraph

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