Antrim step up into the big leagues with Galway challenge
Former All-Ireland winning manager Liam Sheedy has sent out a message that Antrim, where he has been brought in as consultant by the management team of Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton and Dominic 'Woody' McKinley, will treat the Allianz Leagues as a learning experience before they find their level in the Joe McDonagh Cup later this year.
"You could stand up above in Antrim and you could play the 'feel sorry for yourself' card. In some ways you are a long way away from what would be the main competitive landscape of hurling," said the Portroe man, who brought Tipperary to Liam MacCarthy Cup glory in 2010.
"But that's not how this county views themselves. This county wants to be the best version of themselves and it is a journey. The bus is running, the lads that are on board are giving it absolutely everything and the bus will be challenged from time to time.
"They are trying hard and they are giving it absolutely everything. I am seeing real improvement."
Sheedy's name was an unlikely one to be attached to the coaching ticket, but such were his impressions of McNaughton after he sat on the Sheedy-chaired Hurling 2020 committee, that when the former All-Star asked if he would get involved in the Saffrons he committed to a consultancy role that sees him making the lengthy trip twice or three times per month to work across a number of panels in the county.
Antrim have been conducting their pre-season under the guidance of renowned strength and conditioning coach Tommy Stevenson and get their Division 1B campaign off to a start against All-Ireland champions Galway this Sunday (1pm).
"The McGurk final performance was a very, very good performance, they put up a really good score," said the 48-year-old of the recent win over Down.
"But it's stepping up from that arena, stepping into the All-Ireland champions. Going up a few notches is an understatement.
"In a squad like Galway, Kilkenny or Tipperary, you can deal with the knocks. But when you are working with a small base… Ciaran Clarke is injured, Arron Graffin is carrying a knock, Neil McManus has a niggle, Stephen Rooney isn't right… there are a few lads carrying knocks and that does impact. But look, I'd rather see them carrying the knocks in the middle of January than in the middle of May for what is the Championship."
He added: "I think Division 1B where you are going to pitting yourself up against the Galways, the Laois', the Limericks and Dublins, it is a chance to learn a bit about yourself as a player and as a person, as a team.
"We met get taught a few lessons along the way, but you know what? This group is mad keen to play. This is the level they want to get to and the only way to get there is to play them again and again and again."
A succession of managers have come and went since Dinny Cahill's second spell, when he led Antrim to a credible All-Ireland quarter-final defeat against Cork in 2010.
With McNaughton and McKinley back for their own second spell in charge, they secured promotion from Division 2A but lost the Christy Ring final to Carlow.
They have struggled to get a large training panel out over the winter to play full-sided games, but Sheedy feels that will not deter them from their aims.
"You would have no bother getting 40 into a panel in Tipp, but it's a challenge to get 30 to have 15 V 15 in Antrim and that is what we are working on," he stated.
"But I can tell you, they are working extremely, extremely hard to try and make sure they are the best version of themselves in 2018. No more can you ask for, than that.
"I suppose you are all the time looking for a team to buy-in and commit to the Antrim cause and to the jersey."
National Hurling League:
Pearse Stadium, Sunday, 1.00pm