Antrim county board chairman John McSparran is convinced that his team’s Leinster Hurling Championship encounter with Dublin on Sunday represents “a great draw altogether”.
Busy GP McSparran, who has vociferously championed the cause of Antrim and Ulster hurling for so long, now wants to see the Saffrons set Croke Park alight when they square up to Anthony Daly’s stormtroopers.
“This is where we want to be,” enthuses McSparran. “Playing in Croke Park in peak summer is what it is all about. I believe that our players now have a golden opportunity to prove themselves on the big stage.”
But for all his zest and passion, McSparran is keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.
“Let’s be realistic, Dublin have been playing in Division One of the National League lately and have given some very good performances against quality sides. They ran All Ireland champions Kilkenny close and they will have taken considerable heart from their league efforts overall. Dublin are ahead of us, too, in terms of overall development, I feel,” points out the Antrim chairman.
Yet, McSparran still believes that there is sufficient experience and skill within the side to cause problems for the Dubs.
“I think it’s important that we keep it tight, certainly at the start. We simply cannot afford to let Dublin steal a march on us or there is the risk that we could collapse.
“We will need to be really competitive and while we are not maybe everything that we want to be, this is still a wonderful opportunity for the players to show Antrim hurling in the best possible light on the national stage,” insists McSparran.
The Antrim team, a potentially exciting mix of steely resolve and precocious youthful talent, certainly has the capacity to captivate Headquarters — and it’s hardly surprising that Dublin boss Anthony Daly, the former Clare All Ireland winning skipper, is wary of this threat.
“Antrim have shown a great hunger to get into Leinster and now that they are here, they won’t want to miss out on the chance to do well,” says Daly.
Even though they are without several first-choice players, Antrim possess solid defenders in skipper Neil McGarry, corner-back Aaron Graffin, wing-back Johnny Campbell and left-half Neil McAuley while the Karl McKeegan-Paddy Richmond midfield partnership represents the most experienced element within the side. Up front CJ McGourty, PJ O’Connell and Neil McManus are poised to bring their individual artistry onto the Headquarters stage.
Joint manager Dominic McKinley has thrown down the gauntlet to his players to rise to the occasion.
“They will be playing for the pride of their county and their province. It would be a massive shot in the arm for us if we were to win this game,” insists McKinley.