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Saffrons can find the fighting spirit of old: McManus

By Declan Bogue

Antrim's Neil McManus is awaiting the results of a scan to determine what extent he plays in the Saffrons' drive for promotion from 2A.

Speaking at the Allianz Leagues launch yesterday in Malone House, Belfast, the Ruairi Óg Cushendall man was sporting a black eye, inflicted by the suspected broken cheekbone in Antrim's challenge match at Corrigan Park against All-Ireland champions, Tipperary on January 29.

"I'll be back as soon as I can, but I'll be sensible enough with it too," he said.

"We have a strong panel so I don't think it'll take away too much from the team.

"When I'm on the exercise bike when the boys are training, the heart rate gets up, the blood starts pumping around the body and the pressure in behind the cheekbone is pretty intense. You have to be careful, I'm not going to be stupid."

It was the latest in a series of head injuries suffered by McManus, who also picked one up in the county hurling final of 2015 against Ballycastle, and the All-Ireland club final against Na Piarsaigh.

Should the worst be revealed, the 28-year-old could be out as long as two months, meaning he will definitely miss the opening two crucial fixtures against London and Carlow.

Subsequent matches against Kildare and Armagh would also be in question, but he could realistically expect to field in the final league regulation game at home to Westmeath.

Despite that potential setback, McManus is buoyant ahead of the league opener this Sunday against London, hosted at Corrigan Park.

Ten years on from the minor team that showed so much promise under Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton and Dominic 'Woody' McKinley, the management are back with a core of players from that minor generation.

Asked if McManus might have thought he would be getting ready to host a Kilkenny at a gleaming new Casement Park at this stage of his career, rather than London in Corrigan Park, he heartily agrees.

"Whenever I was coming through the ranks at minor level I know that the players we had were as good as anything in Ireland," he insisted.

"We still have really, really good players. I suppose the whole panel as a whole hasn't lived up to those standards.

"Your standards and your routines dictate where you go in life, in anything, let alone sport.

"What you do religiously, you do over and over again, dictates where you go and they haven't been good enough in Antrim to date, at that level."

He dealt a dose of reality to the situation when he added: "The fact of the matter is that we were in Division 1A/1B in the first seven or eight years of my intercounty career and last year we played in 2A and we are in 2A again.

"We are in 2A because we deserve to be and there are some very strong teams in the group as well.

"It will be a mammoth task to get out of 2A, there is no doubt about that. It will be a massive victory if we manage to do that, one of the top things we have done with Antrim in my time, to get back up to Division 1."

He added: "What we are looking to do is to bring the set-up, the mindset and the rituals that we had as minors, to the senior team.

"We were an extremely dedicated, talented and committed group. We want to bring those characteristics back into the senior team. That's where it starts. It starts with how you behave. And if everybody is as committed as they can possibly be, you commit to the process the same as everybody else.

"Whenever you commit to something there is a great power, a great feeling when you know you have invested everything into that. Whenever that feeling gets into the group, when you have that bond and togetherness… success is measured in different ways, but success will follow from that."

The pre-season training in Jordanstown ranks as the hardest work McManus has put in, and he revealed there was hardly a hurl required as the panel focused on fitness and physical strength to gain an edge in their promotion bid.

While there have been false dawns before in Antrim hurling, McManus says there are no reasons to doubt their appetite this time around.

"Whenever you put in those hard yards with the other members of your team, there's nothing better. In a kind of sadistic sense, that horrible torture is brilliant for a team and pulling people together," he explained.

"Whenever you have worked really hard, you can see the honesty in it. On those cold nights in Jordanstown, you could see the honesty in it and that only gives people belief in each other and brings you on to a new level.

"The foundation block is honesty and trust. If you're honest about your work and trust the people you're doing it alongside, the outcome is good. That's where Antrim had to start and we're no further than that, we haven't played any matches, but we have worked very hard and the group have been very honest and very committed."

A year out travelling has only served to make McManus ravenous for action. Last year Antrim lost a league fixture to London and - far from disengaging entirely with the sport while touring the world - the fortunes of the county hurling team dictated his mood; far too much for the liking of his fianceé, Aileen.

"Take the Christy Ring Cup for instance when it was on," he said.

"I was in Vietnam and I watched that game through GAAGO, a brilliant service, sitting in the hostel with my fianceé.

"And after Antrim were beat, she told me it ruined the next couple of days of the trip."

He added: "I was in total and utter bad form and I am hard to get in bad form, but I probably didn't realise what it meant to me until I wasn't involved.

"It's probably why I am enjoying this year so, so much. To be back in the fold.

"There is a lot to atone for, but at the same time you can't be overly-emotional about these things."

Antrim

London

Allianz Hurling League:

Corrigan Park, Sunday, 1.00pm

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