Antrim youth can be a force
Published 20/03/2014 | 01:30
Nobody said that the nurturing of Antrim's young contingent was going to be easy, least of all their captain Neil McManus.
They are four games into their National hurling League campaign, bottom of the table without a point, with the lowest scoring record and level with Offaly in terms of points conceded.
Such bare facts don't take the nuances into account though. Antrim opened the campaign with a one-point defeat to Wexford in Ballycastle, despite delivering what was by their own admission a poor performance.
Limerick handed them a lesson in the Gaelic Grounds and two Laois goal were the difference between the sides at Portlaoise, but there were definite signs in last weekend's defeat to Cork that Antrim are managing to get their teeth into the opposition.
They led at half-time by four points and while Cork still squeezed through by three points, Antrim can console themselves that a famous scalp was within their reach with the double-edged sword that a tally of 15 wides brings.
"We were the better team for long parts," reflects Ruairi Óg Cushendall clubman McManus at this remove.
"At the same time, we missed plenty of opportunities and made a few silly mistakes. There is plenty to work on but on the whole it was a pleasing performance. The heart we showed was commendable.
"So many of the young boys, 18, 19-year-olds are definitely breaking even if not getting the better of some of the best players in Ireland."
Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy wasn't disagreeing, saying: "We maybe didn't deserve to win. We were very, very lucky. Antrim put it up to us and they will be very disappointed they didn't get something out of that game."
McManus is a young man yet, but is considered one of the veterans. Alongside him in the squad are Shane McNaughton, Paul Shiels, Simon McCrory and Barry McFall, who were all part of the minor team that were taught to dream big by their joint managers, 'Sambo' McNaughton and 'Woody' McKinley.
The task presented to Kevin Ryan, or rather the one that he set for himself by taking a long-term view, was to marry that generation with the crop of lads coming through from last year's side that reached the All-Ireland under-21 final; such as Jackson McGreevy, Ciaran Clarke, Stephen McAfee, Matthew Donnelly, the Johnston brothers Conor and Ciaran, Daniel McKernan, Niall McKenna, the list goes on and on.
"But it's going to take time," said McManus back at the launch of the leagues in February. "I'd say a season to be realistic."
The effect of having so many young men on the panel means their attitudes and outlook can be moulded to a certain extent. In the past, some Antrim hurlers pulled their hair out as team-mates boarded the team bus for away trips, with bottles of Coca-Cola and bags of crisps in their hands.
It's something McManus was certainly referring to when he said: "On some occasions in the past, an Antrim jersey was probably earned too easily and wasn't given the respect it was due. I think because of the age group of our team, it's easy to impress upon our team what an honour it is to be given an Antrim jersey and what it's meant to people down through the years.
"There is a tradition there and when you are handed an Antrim jersey you are expected to continue it on, to add something to it."
On Sunday, this young group certainly added something to it in front of a partisan crowd, with McManus commenting: "You are always going to have a bit of a chance of winning your home games, simply because the support is behind you and it's obviously easier to prepare."
This weekend they travel to Tullamore to face Offaly in what is in effect a dead-rubber game.
Both sides will have to meet the following weekend in a relegation play-off and McManus is not sure if Antrim will field a fringe team, with the result having little or no relevance.
What he is utterly convinced of is the continuing improvement of this team and the unshakeable belief that under manager Kevin Ryan, they are on the right road.
He added a dash of context when he said: "I think the progress was there to be seen in full view on Sunday. Although we are young and it is going to be a couple of seasons before you see the best of this Antrim team.
"Our oldest player is around 25 and I think Kevin (Ryan) has been given the time to build and sort out the way we want to play. I have no doubt we will be a serious, serious force within two seasons."