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Moving forward: Neal McAuley (right) knows Antrim have underperformed this season and is aiming to put that right in the Christy Ring Cup

Moving forward: Neal McAuley (right) knows Antrim have underperformed this season and is aiming to put that right in the Christy Ring Cup

Lorcan Doherty

Moving forward: Neal McAuley (right) knows Antrim have underperformed this season and is aiming to put that right in the Christy Ring Cup

As T.S. Eliot put it, 'April is the cruellest month'.

On April 1, many thought PJ O'Mullan quitting as Antrim boss was a Fool's Day prank.

Comments he had given the day before to this paper spoke of a man gearing up for the Christy Ring Cup, in which the Saffrons play Roscommon today. But that's Antrim. Unpredictable. Volatile. And entertaining in all the wrong ways.

As a Telecoms salesman, Neal McAuley spends enough time dealing face-to-face with customers and hears everything. He can't avoid it. When Terence McNaughton bemoans that this current generation of Antrim hurlers have had to put up with an unprecedented level of abuse, the Ballycastle man does not shirk from it.

Of the allegations suggesting some players had money staked on London beating them during the League campaign, he said: "We didn't address it because we don't address baseless rumours. We don't get involved in that kind of activity."

The failure to gain promotion from Division 2A led directly or indirectly to O'Mullan's departure, however it came about.

Stuck in the middle, the players have caught some shrapnel as insults have flown. McAuley might even agree that their performances have merited it.

"Whenever the odds are stacked up, we haven't performed. It's difficult to argue against that," the Ballycastle defender stated. "We know we are better than what we have been producing.

"The Antrim hurling public want their team doing well and players want that as well. We want the same things as fans, we want to be winning matches and playing at the top table."

In McNaughton and Dominic 'Woody' McKinley's first reign, it was a different landscape, one that included a famous league victory over Dublin. Dublin can barely see Antrim now in their rearview mirror.

McAuley had them as minor, Under-21 and senior management. They are joined by Gary O'Kane and Neal Pedan. The familiarity feels nice.

"I know them inside out. I played for them in the minor teams years ago and we had a period of three years with the seniors as well," he reminded us. "They are familiar faces and they have been there, done it for Antrim. They have been in the same struggle we have been in. There is a common ground, we all want the same thing.

"We would run through a brick wall for them so all we can do is put in a savage effort for the rest of the season."

They recognise themselves in each other, only in different phases of their hurling lives, he insists. "We are all the same people, we are hurling people and all we want to do is play hurling and enjoy it, to do the best we can for Antrim," he said. "The managers are us, 10, 20 years down the line. We're the same."

Since the new management arrived, they have asked for total honesty. They got that against Kildare last weekend with a 12-point win.

"We were just keen to prove something in our performances on the pitch," said McAuley with a hint of understatement.

"That's where the players are judged. We were just looking for a game to get back at it. We have had that now against Kildare and we need to approach every game with the same attitude and need to get a performance and a result."

Seasoned observers noted that for the first time in a long while, Antrim truly looked like they meant it.

The opposition may not have been the most illustrious they have faced, but McAuley is taking the good from the victory.

"We had to answer some questions and we knew we hadn't performed in the league. Each player's hurling ability was questioned," he added. "We proved last Saturday that we do have good hurlers."

How long the season can go on seems to depend on their appetite for winning the Christy Ring Cup. Antrim won it in 2006, and they don't have the right to turn their noses up at it this year, insists McAuley.

He said: "That's the competition we find ourselves in this year. Every competition you play in, you go out to try and win it, so it is no different if it is a league game or a friendly or a Championship game, you go out to try and win it."

Might as well.

Belfast Telegraph