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On-song Antrim hurlers are ready to the hit high note

By Declan Bogue

Published 10/02/2016

Cusp of glory: Cushendall’s Karl McKeegan and Sean McAfee celebrate victory in the All-Ireland club semi-final
Cusp of glory: Cushendall’s Karl McKeegan and Sean McAfee celebrate victory in the All-Ireland club semi-final

Antrim hurling supporters certainly know when to pick the right moment to blast out their signature tune.

At half-time of the All-Ireland club hurling semi-final - with Ruairi Óg Cushendall leading Galway's Sarsfields by 1-4 to 0-5 - the sizeable crowd piped up with the unofficial anthem of the area, 'The Green Glens of Antrim'.

"Soon I hope to return to my own Cushendall, 'Tis the one place for me that can outshine them all," they sang.

Their heroes responded by adding an astonishing 2-8 in the second-half to make their first All-Ireland club final at the ninth attempt.

Another time that song got an airing at a hurling match was in the mid-80s at Casement Park, during a league campaign with the late, great Jim Nelson as manager.

Full-back Ger Rogan recalled: "The last game was against Dublin. Whoever won gained promotion to Division One. It was a cold day, it was in Casement Park and we won. But when we did, the crowd started singing 'The Green Glens of Antrim'. It was a most amazing experience."

Last Saturday, this paper carried an interview with Ruairi Óg star Neil McManus. While assessing their chances against the Galway side, he said something that wasn't in keeping with the kind of humility demanded of people involved in Ulster hurling - "I wouldn't be swapping the panel of players that I am going into Saturday's match with any other club in Ireland."

This Sunday, Antrim open their National League campaign away to Derry in Division 2A. There is a group within Antrim hurling that would be appalled by this situation.

If a strong Antrim county team is to emerge, two things need to happen - the club scene needs to drive the county side and hurling within the Belfast clubs needs to begin bridging a significant fault line.

The strongest ever Antrim team were under the care of Nelson within the 1988 to 1993 period.

It was no coincidence that from 1986, five consecutive Championships were won by different clubs - McQuillan's, Ruairi Ógs, O'Donovan Rossa, Loughgiel Shamrocks and Cuchullain's, Dunloy.

Far from fearing that culture, Nelson harnessed it and encouraged the clubs to hurl hard against each other. The one thing he would not stand for was rivalry spilling over into a county dressing room, forcing players from different clubs to sit beside one another in meetings and room together.

After that period, Cushendall and Dunloy shared 19 of the following 20 Championships, O'Donovan Rossa breaking the hegemony in 2004 in a period that was characterised by the erosion of Antrim's fortunes at county level.

The success and attractiveness of a domestic Championship is often used as a lazy excuse for under-achievement by a county team. Step forward Derry football in this regard. The Tyrone football Championship has the same level of fierce competition as Derry, only with less tub-thumping.

PJ O'Mullan Jnr knows there is nothing wrong with a little bit of spikiness. After being appointed as county manager, we put it directly to him that having been involved with a Loughgiel team that won an All-Ireland, there might therefore be a toxic residue and envy remaining from that time.

He responded: "Rivalry is healthy. I want clubs to play hard and fair against each other and always encourage players to represent their club with pride. But equally, I demand commitment to the Antrim jersey when they come together."

Clearly, he picked up plenty from his old mentor during their spell together at the Shamrocks.

Right now, Antrim has a thriving club Championship. This year's final between Cushendall and Ballycastle was fiercely fought out, and only for a rebound that came back off the crossbar it might have been Ballycastle preparing for an All-Ireland final now.

Elsewhere, you have strong Dunloy and Loughgiel teams, making the spread greater than it has been in some time.

One of the key aims of the Saffron Vision group has been to arrest the slide of hurling in Belfast. St John's have shown a lot of promise at under-age. O'Donovan Rossa won an All-Ireland Intermediate title last year and if football wasn't as prominent in the club, you never know what a St Gall's team could produce.

If all that comes together, you never know. You might hear 'The Green Glens of Antrim' from the stands once more.

Belfast Telegraph

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