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Fear-free Antrim out to shock

By Declan Bogue

Look hard enough, and you will find the good days of Antrim hurling. Among the abundance of second-half collapses, the descent into ill-discipline that has so often caught them unawares, they have completed some days bathed in the glow of satisfaction.

On those special days, the name of Neil McManus will inevitably dominate the narrative. As an illustration of his talent, a quick glance of Sunday's All-Ireland final programme reveals that although his Championship season comprised of only three games, his name still sneaks into the top 10 scorers of this years' All-Ireland hurling Championship.

When that all ended, senior manager Kevin Ryan asked casually if he would be willing to give him a hand with the county under-21s. McManus agreed. Sure why not, nothing was expected of them anyway. Training sessions were lacklustre affairs and they struggled for numbers but there is nothing unfamiliar about that.

With the county board setting a round of football fixtures that would clash with the hurling semi-final against Wexford, we saw exactly how it ranked in the greater scheme of things within the county.

Then Antrim won. Crazy scenes. Only 30-odd Antrim folk in the stands in Semple Stadium ("You could nearly pinpoint them individually" says McManus), but bursting with pride.

So was McManus. In response to one congratulatory text he fired back: 'That's the best feeling, ever.'

"I have had plenty of good days too playing with Antrim and Cushendall, it is a different feeling standing watching it rather than playing. But that was an unbelievable feeling.

"We were such big underdogs, it was unreal," he reflects now on the win, with Wexford unbackable at 80/1 on to beat the Saffrons.

"So many times in the past we would run a team close and just miss out in the end, but that team really, really deserved that victory.

"That's what made me so happy in the end. Then you realise very quickly that these guys are getting experience playing for the under-21s in an All-Ireland final, so that's a big, big deal."

There is a paradox in victory. When McManus was a part of an Antrim minor team that pushed Limerick twice in the middle years of the last decade, their strength was the serious preparation by coaches Sambo McNaughton and Dominic McKinley, including residential weekends and a concentrated programme of challenge games against southern opposition.

Among the theories professed for this win is the underage work going on among the Antrim clubs, who are all trying to follow the example of 2012 All-Ireland champions Loughgiel Shamrocks. It can be done, they all realise now.

At county level, 1989 was the last time Antrim were in a senior All-Ireland final. As McManus explains, that team has no relevance beyond a black and white photograph hanging somewhere in Casement Park.

"A lot of us weren't born – and none of the under-21 players were born at all the last time Antrim were in an All-Ireland final! So it's a huge achievement for these guys and the fruit of this will be to get the experience of playing in an All-Ireland final day. That's the big plus."

If that sounds downbeat, it's because he realises that they are facing a Clare team that could be the most battle-hardened edition of any team at this level, no less of 17 of them forming part of the extended senior squad who snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat last Sunday in Croke Park.

"We are under no illusions, I don't think the general public are either, it would be completely unfair to expect a team that has only been together for six weeks to be competitive.

"There are so many of that Clare team that are still there from last year, last years' winning side.

"There is nothing to lose, go out and enjoy themselves, go out and enjoy the experience.

"Whatever happens, happens. There's no pressure on them and we would be silly and unfair to put pressure on them."

Back in the late '70s, Antrim underage sides played in the Leinster Championship for five years and experiences of beating Kilkenny and Wexford showed them they could compete at senior level.

"If they can play the way they did the last day, that will put them in a position that they can be proud of their performance," says McManus of what they want to get out of Saturday's final.

"The lads have been enriched by the experience and we have absolutely no pressure on.

"We have never been in a better situation, this is going to be a bonus, playing against probably one of the best under-21 teams.

"We are going to go out, throw the shackles off and have a real cut off it."

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