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Antrim hurlers back on right track

By Declan Bogue

It's always a bit different when it comes to these sort of gigs and hurlers are fed like Daniel to the media lions.

There's something altogether earthier, less polished than those media-savvy, experienced media operators of their footballing counterparts. Therein lies their charm.

Antrim's Neil McManus beams as he anticipates the opening fixture of the Allianz National League, away to Limerick this Sunday in the Gaelic Grounds.

His hands are covered in welts and scars, the thumbnail on his left blackened, legacies of being willing to stick his paw into the air while a forest of hurls swing in the skies.

Perhaps a career as a pianist with one of the world's greatest orchestras is beyond him now. Instead, he will be out this weekend, practising his own brutal artistry.

"I would say I am as motivated and excited as I have ever been before any campaign, bar maybe the first one because you can't wait to do it for the first time," he enthuses.

"This is a new start for this team. The expectation levels from anywhere in the county about Antrim are very low.

"We believe that we will definitely produce a few shocks along the way and start the process of Antrim climbing the ladder."

The feelgood vibes are a marked contradiction to the early assessments of November, when newly-appointed manager Kevin Ryan despaired at the lack of gusto from players towards Antrim hurling.

That old excuse 'inter-club rivalry' was dredged up again. But in the meantime, Ryan assembled a group of players and their captain feels that they have convinced him they can go places.

"I think the word he used was 'apathy' towards Antrim hurling," recounts McManus.

"It is a strong word but that was the case. I think we have turned that round for him and I think he has seen that there is a very strong commitment from the group of players that are there."

He continues: "This group as a whole have been together since we were 15 or 16 coming through. That has been 10 years in the making.

"I would hope that if he was asked the same questions now, his answers might be different."

That unity has been touched on over the last few weeks. In public utterances, Ryan has been lukewarm about the prospect of drafting large numbers of Loughgiel players when their All-Ireland defence concluded.

Instead, he has brought in Eddie McCloskey – who starts on Sunday – and substitute Tony McCloskey, while Shay Casey will feature but at present is injured.

Earlier comments made by McManus about players being "in it for themselves" raised a few eyebrows, but at this remove he still stands by his views.

"It's up to Kevin Ryan whoever he wants to bring into the panel," he says. "But at the minute everybody is working hard, there's a real bond between the players, we are a tight unit."

First up is Limerick, a team that McManus knows only too well from their wafer-thin defeats in the All-Ireland minor series.

He has looked on as players from his generation have pushed themselves on with the Treaty County, backboned by a handful of veterans who have added the necessary experience.

"That's a luxury in Antrim we don't have," he adds ruefully.

"One of the hardest possible ways of starting the league is an away trip to Limerick," he says.

"That's who you want to play against at the same time – you want to play against the highest-quality opposition and that's what we are doing on Sunday," he states.

To McManus and other players, the comments from former Olympic athlete Jerry Kiernan about how they don't deserve their Gaelic Players' Association grants were so disappointing.

"I think the amount of value that the Irish community get from the GAA cannot be understated," explains McManus.

"That's represented through inter-county players and the GAA is the most influential group, socially and physically, in Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph


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