Antrim now in a good place, says McManus
The Tuesday night after Antrim were cut from the All-Ireland qualifiers, they were back training.
Considering the manner of their defeat to Offaly – a last-minute free that shouldn't have been awarded, floated into the box through a thicket of hurls, bouncing off the Astroturf to the net – they might have been forgiven for going on the tear.
After all, progress had been made. They just about held their own in Division 1B, before impressively marching through the Leinster qualifying round-robin to meet Wexford.
Up against the three other counties earmarked at Congress for extra funding to raise their standards; Laois, Carlow and Westmeath, Antrim beat each of them in turn.
They were buried under an avalanche of goals against Wexford but recovered well enough to contest and be in front by the last minute against Offaly, before disaster struck.
"It was extremely tough to get over that one," recalls their captain, Neil McManus, as he prepares for the Ulster final this weekend against Derry (Owenbeg, 1.30pm throw-in).
"We threw the game away, lots of thing went for us on the day but at the same time we were in absolute control of that game and that we didn't win it is absolutely heartbreaking. The way we lost it was a huge pity."
Still, they are on a path and there was always expected to be some bumps along the way.
He continues, "There is no doubt that the improvement was there for everybody to see, but we are under no doubt that we know we can go further and do better. That's what we intend to do, we intend to improve every year and I think you will see Antrim in an even stronger position next year, because of the youthful exuberance you see there and the talent that is undeniable."
Ulster hurling is a small village. Players tend to know each other at the top end, because the Down and Antrim clubs are mixed through each other for league competitions.
Elsewhere, the Tain league structures has meant players from Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh are intimately familiar with players in Leitrim and Monaghan.
But there is something missing from hurling at county level. Last year through one failing and another of various bodies, the Ulster final was not contested. When it eventually went ahead last February, only 139 souls showed up.
The Ulster Championship is a chore for players and management teams at this point. To most, stark illustration of this point came with the Derry v Armagh match, which took a mere £9 at the gate for the Ulster Council.
McManus feels it could do with some rejuvenation and cites the 2008 competition, when all nine Ulster counties, along with London, competed for the Liam Harvey Cup.
"To see them getting to ply their trade where they wanted to was a good thing and I would definitely recommend that all counties in Ulster are included in the provincial championship," he states.
McManus played his first Ulster final in 2007, during a downpour as they beat Down by 26 points. It was a thrill to win his first trophy, especially after being brought to so many previous finals by his father, Hugh.
To the likes of Jim Connolly and Karl McKeegan it probably meant less, especially given that it wasn't a path to the All-Ireland competition.
In the meantime, it has been even further diluted.
"That's true," McManus agrees.
"When Antrim have been so dominant it has taken the shine off the competition.
"We have won, I think, the last 12 and when ourselves get straight through to the final, it's maybe not fair on the rest of the teams either.
"While we are participating in the Leinster Championship, it's probably fair on us that we don't play the early rounds of Ulster."
At the grand old age of 26, the Cushendall man is actually one of the elder statesmen of the team. He notes that quite a few men will get their turn at a first final, as low-key as they might actually be these days.
Looking ahead long-term, he welcomes the pledge of money from Congress, but feels they could go further.
"It's a step in the right direction.
"If we had the funds that Dublin had I think you would see a similar level of performance and a similar level of progression.
"There is no doubt that making a set-up more professional makes a team more professional and we can see that from the results of Dublin since they had the money pumped into them," states McManus.
The money invested in Dublin met with increased gates in Croke Park as a dormant hurling public woke up to the possibilities of their team.
With the new Casement Park a couple of years away, who knows what potential could be realised in Antrim?
- PJ Quinn has won his race against time to be fit for Tyrone's Round 2B Qualifier against Armagh at Healy Park on Sunday.
TYRONE (Rd 2B Qualifier v Armagh): N Morgan; A McCrory, R McNamee, PJ Quinn; R McNabb, M Donnelly, Justin McMahon; C Cavanagh, S Cavanagh; E McKenna, K Coney, C McGinley; D McCurry, N McKenna, C McAliskey
CAVAN (Rd 2B Qualifier v Roscommon): C Gilsenan; J McLoughlin, R Dunne, F Flanagan; J Hayes, J McEnroe, R Maloney-Derham; D O'Reilly, G McKiernan; M Argue, M Lyng, N McDermott; J Brady, E Keating, M Reilly
ANTRIM (USHC v Derry): S McToal; O McFadden, A Graffin, M Bradley; E Campbell, N McAuley, N McManus; J McGreevy, D Hamill; C McCann, C Carson, P Shiels; C McGuinness, M Donnelly, PJ O'Connell
DERRY (USHC v Antrim): D McDermott; A Rafferty, C Quinn, E McGuckin; P Cleary, O McCloskey, C McQuillan; M O'Hagan, M Warnock; T McCloskey, S McGuigan, A Kelly; J O'Dwyer, R Convery (Capt), C Convery