Kevin Ryan urges Saffrons to build on play-off success
Antrim may have passed one test already this year by the skin of their teeth, but manager Kevin Ryan expects his side to perform rather better when they launch their Leinster championship campaign against Westmeath at Ballycastle tomorrow.
After losing five games in Division 1B on the trot, the Saffrons hauled themselves up from the floor to get the better of fellow-strugglers Offaly in a relegation shoot-out and thus retain their place in the top tier for next season.
But while manager Ryan viewed the league as a settling-in period for some new players, he will make more rigorous demands from his side in their Leinster mission.
"It means so much to us to stay in 1B and since then we have been preparing hard for the Leinster championship. I'm delighted for all the lads that they have stayed up but they have to prove themselves now," states the straight-talking Ryan.
While he is happy with the commitment he is getting from his players, he recognises that his side have some way to go before then can gain real credibility within the sport.
"There's an awful lot more work to be done and there's another good few pieces to add to the jigsaw in the background to make the whole thing work," admits Ryan.
If the Saffrons gained a measure of comfort at the very end of the league, then Westmeath endured a harrowing campaign, even though they managed to hold onto their Division 2A slot.
Manager Brian Hanley has been under incessant pressure for some time with claims that he had "lost the dressing-room" and could see his tenure ended should his side fail to make headway.
A lack of consistency allied to an absence of real spirit on occasions militated against Westmeath's prospects of progress yet the team still contains a ration of good players.
Eoin Price strives to set a good example as captain, while Peter Collins, Brendan Doyle and Tommy Gallagher can hold their own in any company.
Antrim skipper Neil McManus leads a side that is an amalgam of youth and experience. Paul Shiels is in superb form at midfield, Conor McKinley is a defensive pillar and McManus himself along with Conor Carson, PJ O'Connell and Mattie Donnelly provides a cutting edge up front.
The return of Aaron Graffin further bolsters manager Ryan's resources and captain McManus believes that Antrim can build on that crucial win over Offaly.
"To get off to a good start in Leinster would be a real morale-booster for us," says McManus.
Victory would certainly provide an incentive for Ryan's men to finally make their mark in a competition in which they have participated for the past few years without breaking any ice.