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Ambitious Antrim aim to get back in the big time: Campbell



New challenge: Johnny Campbell, in his Antrim playing days and now, is relishing Saffrons
backroom role under Darren Gleeson

New challenge: Johnny Campbell, in his Antrim playing days and now, is relishing Saffrons backroom role under Darren Gleeson

New challenge: Johnny Campbell, in his Antrim playing days and now, is relishing Saffrons backroom role under Darren Gleeson

When Johnny Campbell started out on this road so many years ago, Antrim could look the very best in the eye.

Campbell was only a skinny back from Loughgiel in his first year of what is actually 'senior hurling' - not the crude euphemism scattered around politics over the last month - when Antrim manager Dinny Cahill handed him his Championship debut.

It was July 2002 and the Saffrons were facing Cahill's native Tipperary. They hadn't shown anything spectacular in the Ulster campaign in beating New York, while they only scraped by Down in the final by four points.

But they had a cocky 19-year-old in Liam Watson making his first steps in county hurling, and they still could call on the last remainder from the 1987 All-Ireland final team, Gary O'Kane.

Campbell had been introduced as a sub in both games, but Cahill put him in to mark none other than Eoin Kelly. And with just 10 minutes left, Antrim were still just three points adrift until they ran out of gas in the thin air of Croke Park hurling.

Now, Campbell is on the line, along with O'Kane, as selectors for former Tipperary All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Darren Gleeson.

Last week in west Belfast, the Davitts club were able to open their new stand by hosting the commemorative Fr Alec Reid game against Tipp.

Fr Reid was one of the architects of the Peace Process, who facilitated meetings between John Hume and Gerry Adams in the late '80s. A native of Nenagh, the regard he was held in is marked by this sporting fixture.

The ties do not end there of course. Liam Sheedy was Tipperary's manager when they won the All-Ireland in 2010 and returned to lead them to Liam last year. In between times he has spent years helping out with Antrim in an advisory capacity and introduced Gleeson to the county.

Last year, Gleeson was a trainer with Antrim, and Tipperary's goalkeeping coach.

When the call came from Gleeson to Campbell to come on board for the season, there was no choice to be made at all.

"Obviously I was in with Loughgiel for a few years and whenever Darren called, it was something that pricked my ears up. For me, it was too good an opportunity to turn down to be honest," says the 37-year-old electrician.

"Working with Darren and the panels he has been around and the people he has played under, hopefully, or surely even, I will pick up something, somewhere along the line."

The Sheedy influence on Gleeson is strong. Sheedy is known for his intense attention to detail and when he compiled a backroom team, he handed over a great deal of responsibility to Belfast man Cairbre ÓCairealláin to head up his strength and conditioning work.

When Gleeson started to put together what he termed was fit for "an elite group of hurlers," he recruited former Down strength and conditioning coach Brendan Murphy, who has had experience with Canadian and Japanese cycling teams, as well as dietician Julia Bone.

With former manager Neal Pedan now in a newly-created Director of Hurling role, Antrim have never been better equipped, with Campbell joined by other selectors, the aforementioned O'Kane as well as Jimmy Close.

"Obviously the more professional a set-up you have, your chances are going to be greater," states Campbell.

"Darren has brought a hell of a lot to it, and my experience as a county player to now, in the 10 years almost, things have moved on so much. It's crazy."

Antrim now go into their third game of their Division 2A league campaign with maximum points from the opening two games against Wicklow and Mayo. There can be no doubt, though, that the computer throwing out the fixtures has lobbed a couple of soft ones their way before meeting Offaly tomorrow (away), Meath (home) and Kerry (away). "Any team is about the players, and fortunately at the minute we have a great crop of players who are buying into what Darren is selling, and hopefully it will take them places," Campbell explains.

"It won't be the flick of a switch and it won't happen overnight, but we are hoping to add a wee bit of consistency to Antrim hurling.

"Antrim was always able to pull out a performance in certain games, but it was maybe the consistency levels that continued to hinder us at times."

The visit of Tipperary was a reminder of what used to be for Antrim. The Saffrons and Offaly are two counties of similar standing that are trying to make their way back among the game's elite, but realise they have a long way to go.

"Look, we are in Division 2A for a reason," says Campbell.

"The league tables do not lie, as the old saying goes. But it is a minefield. Ourselves, Offaly, Meath and Kerry will all have notions of going up, and we have four points out of four at the minute so time will tell."

Belfast Telegraph