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Antrim ace Stephen McAfee relishing Clare rematch

By Declan Bogue

The sting had gone out of any exchanges by the time Stephen McAfee dared to look up at the scoreboard. 2-28 to 0-12. Not even close.

Antrim were in an All-Ireland final but this was pain. Along the sideline, Clare fans had gathered to celebrate on the pitch, riding the wave of a summer that would bring a typically romantic ending.

There was no such regard for the romance of Antrim. They had found themselves that day in Semple, impostors in an All-Ireland final against the all-singing, all-dancing talents of Tony Kelly, Shane O'Donnell and Podge Collins. Mis-matched.

One year on and the Antrim Under-21s are in another game against Clare (Today, Thurles, throw-in 4pm).

McAfee recalls how they were blown out of the water last year.

"The final probably caught a lot of boys for nerves. We were very slow to start. I'd say the first 10 minutes were actually tight score wise but after that Clare had another gear that we couldn't match.

"That's basically it, in about 15 or 20 minutes they completely eclipsed us. We were caught out in the end, by the training that we hadn't done. We hadn't prepared well enough for it."

The Ballycastle man admits that they got away with it in the semi-final against Wexford. But then you wonder, were they better off gaining a moral victory with a tight loss to Wexford having hampered their own progress with tawdry and miserable attendances at training?

The 21-year-old student has his own thoughts.

"Fair enough, we got to the final and were beaten by 20 plus points but it was an experience that we'll never forget.

"There was no-one in Ulster who could say they have played in an All-Ireland final at under-21s. I'd rather have won the semi-final and then got hammered than lost the semi-final and then get a pat on the back."

If it's memories they were chasing, they will never forget Wexford and that bizarre day when nobody, most especially themselves, gave them a hope.

"We didn't even have a thought in mind about winning the game. On the way down in the bus it was just laugh and banter, a bit of craic.

"Then half way through the game, we knew Wexford were having a kind of off day, but we just kind of thought, 'it's there for the taking'. So we gave it a go for another half and just about held out."

And hold out they did as Wexford laid siege to them.

"The last five, 10 minutes they tried to throw the kitchen sink at us but we held out by two points. If they'd played at all, they probably would have caught up with us but we just managed to hang on."

Afterwards, some of the management team and players made some points about their level of preparation. McAfee feels that needs some revision.

Yes, there were nights when only 14 turned up, but it was more likely that there were around 17 or 18 on nights.

Even that viewpoint is an illustration of the 'glass half-full' mentality you must be equipped with in order to dedicate yourself to Antrim hurling.

Who else would be justifying training with attendances of 17 and 18? Not Wexford. Certainly not Clare.

But still, Antrim were not helped by their own, and that same weekend the Antrim county board put on a round of football club fixtures that denied a member of the team his chance to play against Wexford, as he was needed for the club.

Something different, but similar, has cropped up this year.

McAfee's club Ballycastle McQuillans are out against Dunloy at Loughgiel in the Championship next Sunday.

Club managers required their players over the last month and they certainly wouldn't want them getting hurt at this stage of the season. Typical, disjointed preparations. No surprise.

Ask him about fixture problems and he delivers a straightforward, thoughtful response.

"Now that the questions have been asked, they have to be answered, not just by us but by everybody else," says McAfee.

"Why do these problems occur? Why are fixtures set on the same days? Now that it has happened, at least they can now try and put things in place where they won't happen again.

"It does get a bit annoying answering the same questions all the time. But at least, hopefully, they'll be sorted so we don't have to be answering the same ones in a year or two down the line, where everything is done properly and players aren't forced to pick between club and county."

Still, it's disrupted any kind of tailored plan that manager Kevin Ryan might have had for these players.

Sure, they can put the head down and work hard when they are there, but a spirit and a bond can only be fostered through constant unity, never mind what can be achieved with a periodised training programme.

"You're kind of being pulled from club to county on a regular basis," acknowledges McAfee.

"When we do get together, we're working hard and we've done more preparation than we did last year, but at the same time it's just difficult getting together because clubs want you in one place and the county want you in the other. It's just difficult to get the work done."

Some day, they will be able to arrange their affairs and give themselves the best chance of success. Until then, they are set for days like today.

Not even McAfee sounds hopeful against a team that are already being talked about as the best team at this level, ever.

"They'd probably beat the fair majority of senior teams out there so we're just going to have to go toe to toe with them and see if we can come out on the other side.

"As long as we keep it respectable and better than the performance we had in last year's final that would be it."

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