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Antrim's Jackson McGreevy a new breed of star

By Declan Bogue

Sometimes, you don't recognise what you have. Antrim county board certainly didn't last August when they sent an under-21 hurling team to fulfil the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford.

Priced at 12/1 before the game, an early goal from Stephen McAfee propelled them to a two-point win.

The two years previous to that, Antrim teams had been beaten by an average of 27 points at the same stage. No wonder the county board set a round of club football Championship games the same day. No wonder there were only a dozen or so Antrim players training in the lead up.

Yet they found a way to win and get to an All-Ireland final.

The next day, it wasn't pretty. A large proportion of the Clare senior squad was made up of under-21s and this final came sandwiched between their two senior finals against Cork.

Antrim captain Jackson McGreevy spent his afternoon chasing the shadow of eventual Young Hurler and Senior Hurler of the Year, Tony Kelly as the Banner county won 2-28 to 0-12.

"I didn't do myself justice," the St Gall's man deadpans now.

"He gave me a headache that day. I was happy to see him getting taken off. Your confidence was going and he was going for the All-Ireland final, so his fitness was up."

Still, he took his lessons from the afternoon.

"I was glad to play against young players of that calibre because you like to see where you have to get to. And it shows you the standard that the players in Antrim have to reach."

Despite the final result, the semi-final still stands as a good day for Antrim hurling. Sometimes you just have to let yourself go and enjoy these wins when they occur, however surprising they are. And few were as surprised as McGreevy with what unfolded that Saturday in Semple Stadium.

"Yeah, it shocked me. I thought we deserved it. On the day, we deserved to win. But our preparation for the game wasn't what you expected it to be.

"Numbers at training would be the main thing. We were only getting nine, 10, 11 people at training, tops."

McGreevy is in his second year of Sports Studies in Jordanstown, a course heavily geared towards coaching.

Given what he is immersed in, and his spells volunteering with coaching the teeming youth scene at St Gall's, you might expect a blown gasket or two about the lack of dedication of others.

He surprises you though, with his perceptive outlook.

"It's not really my business," he begins. "My job is to get me to training. Whether fellas have valid reasons or not, for not training, that's their reasons. It's my business to get me to training."

With such a level-headed approach, it's not hard to see how he was the obvious choice for the judges of the Ulster GAA Writer's Association, when they named him the 2013 Cormac McAnallen Young Achiever of the Year at their awards ceremony in Bundoran last November.

At 2pm today, McGreevy lines out at midfield alongside Barry McFall as Antrim get their 2014 underway with a Walsh Cup game against Offaly in Tullamore.

Last season he made his senior Championship debut in the Leinster Championship in a fraught, narrow win against a very game Westmeath side in early May.

That afternoon in Cusack Park, the blue helmet of McGreevy could be seen everywhere as he hassled and harried, a definite candidate for man of the match if it wasn't for the 2-4 of Neil McManus.

Like most young colts he has vast reserves of energy, yet can feel himself getting stronger, faster, fitter. In a move that echoes the role that Irish 800 metre record-holder Dave Matthews has with the Cork hurlers, Paul 'Junior' McKee is the man in charge of fitness, strength and conditioning for Antrim.

McKee has represented Ireland in the Sydney Olympics and, for a time, held indoor and outdoor records for the 400 metres race. No wonder McGreevy explains the results; "I definitely would say I am fitter than last year. The physical training that we are doing is showing in most of the players coming through, not just me.

"You see it in the running off the ball, in the workrate off the ball. That's when you see the fitness."

Training at the state of the art facilities at Jordanstown has helped them in finding a semi-permanent base.

It also helps that he doesn't drink alcohol.

He and brother Kurtis are teetotallers, and he insists that younger brother Gregory will be the same. It isn't any great big pact they have made, just a simple choice they have exercised.

They aren't on their own. Their clubmate Niall O'Neill is the same and McGreevy doesn't see it as missing out on anything.

"We do the same as our friends, but we just don't touch the drink. There are loads of players like that in our club and other clubs. We still do whatever anybody else does, but don't drink."

A couple of years ago, former Antrim hurlers used to share their complaints of a 'Coke and crisps' culture within the panel, or that they simply had a few drinks on the way home from matches to kill the tedium of long bus journeys around the country. Changed times.

There are a band of players on McGreevy's University team that don't touch it either and they saw the benefits of that when they won the All-Ireland league prior to Christmas, beating Tralee IT in the final.

There is a good spread of talent with Simon Doherty and Michael Bradley of St John's, Seamus Dobbin of Loughgiel and Down's Paul Sheehan in the side.

They hope for more honours this year, but for now, he has Antrim duty to attend to. Funny how times flies – his group of under-21s are now infusing with the lauded under-21 group of Shane McNaughton and Neil McManus' vintage.

The circle keeps turning for Antrim. Optimism is the only attitude.

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