Saffrons calling on fan power: Supporters can help us get off to a flying start, says skipper McManus
Antrim captain Neil McManus has looked upon their temporary relocation to Ballycastle as a chance to rouse the support from the hurling heartland of the Glens, and multiply attendances.
Ahead of their Allianz Division 1B opener against Liam Dunne's Wexford on Sunday, the Ruairi Óg, Cushendall man said: "I think it is going to be absolutely huge because of the north Antrim crowd.
"The Belfast support has always been good to us but I think the north Antrim contingent might have been reluctant in the past to travel down.
"The Belfast support is one of the best travelling support you could get and I think they will definitely be in Ballycastle.
"I think you are going to have double, maybe treble the crowds we have had at Antrim games in the past," he commented at the launch of the Allianz hurling leagues in Belfast yesterday.
He believes that a win on Sunday is well within the reach of the current panel, especially with a partisan support in attendance.
"Our recent history against Wexford in the Allianz League has been level over the last three or four years," McManus said.
"They find it hard to beat us in Antrim and we find it hard to beat them down there.
"I think when the under-21s got to the All-Ireland final last year Antrim brought the first huge crowd to the match for a long time. We could do that in Ballycastle in the two chances we have."
However, he also puts those comments in context of how Wexford performed last season, adding: "We understand that Wexford are a good side and last year they drew with Clare and Dublin, for my money two of the best teams in the Championship last year. So they have quality, there's no doubt about that, but we believe that we can make it hard for them on Sunday."
Ballycastle will play host to two home fixtures this year, against Wexford and Cork, while the Saffrons will be on the road for away fixtures against Limerick, Laois and Offaly.
We were in the exact same spot last year when McManus was looking ahead to the league, and when you ask what the key difference between then and now, he is clear and emphatic in his answer – "The objectives," he states. "There is a renewed enthusiasm in Antrim hurling after surviving in Division 1B. Last year's league campaign we targeted survival.
"This year we have probably even more young players than last year. We've had longer together as a group to become competitive."
The current panel is almost like two separate underage teams dovetailing; the minors that ran Limerick to a point in the mid-90s under Sambo McNaughton and Woody McKinley; which includes McManus, Shane McNaughton, Paul Shiels, Simon McCrory and Barry McFall.
They are joined by youngsters coming through such as Jackson McGreevey, brothers Conor and Ciaran Johnston, Ciaran Clarke, Stephen McAfee and Matthew Donnelly among a host of others.
Last year McManus and McFall asked to come onboard with manager Kevin Ryan in taking the under-21s as they defeated Wexford to make it to an All-Ireland final they subsequently lost to a star-studded Clare team.
The motivation for this was one of a keen interest in the groups' nurturing as hurlers.
"One of the reasons was I realised that these young lads were going to be a huge part of our senior panel, even ones that weren't already involved in the senior team," McManus recalls.
"I was just trying to get into their heads a wee bit as regards what is required to play for Antrim and what is expected of them in different areas – away from the pitch."
In the past, the commitment of successive Antrim teams has been called into question, but McManus outlines the new expectations and standards that players are imposing on themselves.
He explained: "What Kevin Ryan has brought is an expectation to be courteous, to behave when we are representing Antrim. To respect other teams, to respect the facilities we are going to.
"On some occasions in the past an Antrim jersey was probably earned too easily and wasn't given the respect it was due. I think it's, because of the age group of our team, it's easy to impress upon our team what an honour it is to be given an Antrim jersey and what it's meant to people down through the years."
He finished: "There is a tradition there and when you are handed an Antrim jersey you are expected to continue it on, to add something to it."