It's win or bust for Saffrons, admits skipper McManus
Antrim captain Neil McManus believes if his team measure up to the "massive task" they face against Westmeath at Cusack Park, Mullingar tomorrow then they will have reasonable grounds for contemplating significant progress in the Leinster Hurling Championship.
A one-point win over Laois last Sunday courtesy of a last-minute goal from Ciaran Clarke ended a depressing seven-match sequence of defeats and rekindled enthusiasm and optimism within Kevin Ryan's Saffrons squad.
But McManus acknowledges unless his side can follow this up with another win tomorrow their participation in the Leinster series could be of short duration.
"That win last Sunday gave us a huge lift but Westmeath beat Carlow and now we're going into what is a 50/50 game," points out McManus.
"There has not been much between us in previous meetings and I don't think it will be any different."
Manager Ryan has persevered with his policy of building for the future even though results in the league ultimately contributed to the team's tumble into Division Two.
Just like the rest of his colleagues, though, McManus enthusiastically endorses Ryan's attempt to restructure his side with the future in mind.
While McManus himself, along with Aaron Graffin, Neal McAuley, Paul Shiels and Conor McKinley, provides solid experience, a tranche of exciting young guns headed by Clarke and Conor Johnston are helping to bring a whole new dimension to the side.
"It's great to see the 18-year-old, 19-year-old and 20-year-old players coming into the side and looking comfortable," says McManus.
"They are helping to push us all on. The way a lot of them played with such spirit last Sunday was very encouraging and helps to give us belief going into this game."
Ryan's decision to give youth a fling was initially viewed as a rash gamble but the manner in which the players have responded to the challenge suggests that they could enjoy lengthy tenures in the team.
"Kevin has shown faith in these young guns and they have responded in the best possible manner," enthuses McManus.
"This augers well for Antrim hurling.
"One of the goals we set ourselves this season was to try and get out of the qualifying group in Leinster and another win would take us a further step along the way in this regard."
While Clarke and Johnston have shown a deft scoring touch, much will depend on their ability to cope with the physicality of the Westmeath defence.
Paul Shiels is as accurate as ever while McManus, too, continues to feature on the scoresheet.
Meanwhile, Derry must kick their heels this weekend as they await the winners of the replay between Kildare and London in the Christy Ring Cup.