Improving Antrim on glory trail
A matter of weeks ago when Antrim just managed to survive in Division 1B of the Allianz Hurling League courtesy of a relegation shoot-out victory over Offaly, manager Kevin Ryan warned his players that they had "an awful lot more to do."
Relief was certainly complemented by realism – Ryan acknowledged that his team's survival in the top flight had been achieved at the eleventh hour but lost no time in driving home the message that the real hard work was about to begin.
Today, much of that work has already been undertaken both on the training ground and in matches to the extent that Antrim go into Sunday's Leinster Championship quarter-final against Wexford harbouring justifiable expectations of making it into the last four – something that would have been deemed improbable as their league campaign unfurled.
And Ryan, a hard taskmaster who has gained the respect of his squad, is in no doubt as to just why the Saffrons find themselves in the spotlight this weekend.
"It's all down to the commitment we are getting from the panel," insists Ryan.
"I said after we had secured our Division One status that there was a lot more ahead and it was going to get a lot harder. There's still a lot to do and there's another few pieces to add to the jigsaw in the background."
Since that Offaly game, Antrim's mindset has been embellished with victories over Carlow, Westmeath, London and Laois.
For a man who smilingly confesses that people think he is "cracked" for making the twice-weekly commute to Antrim from his Waterford base in addition to the miles he logs to matches, Sunday's match against Wexford offers an opportunity to provide compelling evidence that his policy governing Antrim's renaissance is cast in stone.
"It's always an easier spin when the team is winning. The travel is actually good for taking time out. I can take and make a few calls. You find you get even more tuned in after getting those small bits and pieces done. I am used to it, to be honest," states Ryan.
His team lost to Wexford by just a solitary point in the league and with players like Aaron Graffin, Neal McAuley, Paul Shiels, Conor McKinley, PJ O'Connell and skipper Neil McManus there to provide leadership and inspiration, Ryan is confident.
"We have improved steadily but the challenge on Sunday will be to take our game to the next level," adds Ryan.