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Saffrons manager Kevin Ryan sticking to the same path

By Declan Bogue

Back in the spring of 2013, Kevin Ryan had spent a few frantic months gathering an Antrim hurling panel.

Loughgiel Shamrocks had been on a defence of their All-Ireland title and had fallen at the semi-final stage to Galway's St Thomas' after a replay. Given how much hurling they had played at that point, it was perhaps understandable how some of their illustrious names opted not to link up with the county panel.

Others stayed away despite pleadings from Ryan and his backroom team, so therefore it was a very raw panel that assembled for their Leinster Championship match against Westmeath in Mullingar.

"I would be quite optimistic with the panel we have. I do think it is going to take something," Ryan said prior to that game, adding, "If people could just stay a bit patient and give this bunch 12 months anyway, I would hope we would be in a different situation next year."

Now in March 2015, that optimism has been whittled away by a league campaign that keeps on hurting.

In their first game, they lost by a single point to Wexford at the same venue where Liam Dunne's men saw off reigning All-Ireland champions Clare last summer.

A late scoring burst from Limerick also pulled them through, but from that point performances have tailed off drastically, with Laois beating the Saffrons by four points in Armoy before last weekend's 32-point tanking by Waterford.

That 4-30 conceded has left Antrim with the worst points conceded tally of any of the teams in the six divisions in the National League.

Understandably, it has left Ryan feeling down in the mouth.

"It's gone kind of pear-shaped compared to four weeks ago," is his assessment.

"We have to sit back and figure out where these performances are coming out of and what we can do. We more or less collapsed in the second half against Laois and from there, it's been 10 days of spiralling downward performances."

Grunting and pushing is one thing in the gym, and another on the pitch, Ryan feels.

"The strength and conditioning aspect of it is huge for us and I think our hurling has suffered a little, our pitchwork has suffered a little and we are trying to address that right now, but it is finding that balance."

In some ways, Ryan's struggles with this team encapsulates what can be frustrating about the Antrim hurlers. If an inside man takes on the job, then he will always be viewed with suspicion and his club allegiances questioned. It makes for something of a handy excuse when they lose matches.

There is some level of self-examination and even players within the current panel are asking the question of why the best hurlers are unable to play. It's not for want of asking from Ryan's behalf.

It goes back to the initial tone that was struck when Ryan first decided that a four-hour commute from Waterford to Belfast was something he was willing to undertake. He had been doing a fine coaching job in Carlow, but had a rude awakening when he left to go up north.

"I probably believed it was a bit stronger up there, with more passion and more commitment," he said at the time.

"That would have disappointed me initially but I always felt that the hurling was there. It absolutely is."

Going back to Ryan's first Championship game in May 2013, the Antrim support numbered around a dozen souls.

Last year, a few hundred turned up to watch the Cork and Limerick league games but the numbers fell away significantly for their crunch relegation battles. It is said that there is great passion for hurling in Antrim, but it only seems to play out on the club scene. In the meantime, Ryan will continue to make the eight-hour round trips.

"I have always said it, the journey never bothers me. You do a good session and are driving home, I find you are more full of energy. Days like this, you feel every minute.

"But again, it's about getting things right and finding out the little things that need to be tweaked and changed. The one thing for me, and it might not look like it from the outside in, but it's little things need to be tweaked.

"I would have said a year ago it was big things, but we will get there.

"It's important, particularly from the players' point of view, to keep that focus there long term.

"If you have huge knee-jerk reactions to things like this, it gets you nowhere. We have to keep on the path we are on and see what we can do to get there."

There's no other way.

ANTRIM: (v Offaly): R McGarry; O McFadden, T McCann, T O'Ciarain; E McAlonan, R McCambridge, P Shiels; A Graffin, C McKinley; D Hamill, C Carson, M Bradley; C Johnson, C McCann, S McNaughton.

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