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Back to drawing board for Antrim

By Declan Bogue

When PJ O'Mullan took on the job of Antrim hurling manager, he decided that the county would reach out to the clubs and give them ownership of their flagship team.

In the area of player recruitment, he told this correspondent: "We have asked clubs to nominate people, we asked people to come in. There are one or two people to come and one or two we would have liked but didn't get."

By the end of last week, things had turned very flat as they lost a dead-rubber National League fixture in London.

"We will be changing our squad after these matches for the Christy Ring," O'Mullan promised, adding that they would still seek to get some good out of the Ruislip engagement.

Defeat to London raises a series of awkward questions. Even without the Cushendall contingent who are enjoying a break, this game would be seen by many as a 'bottoming out' by the Saffrons.

Sooner or later, this job gets you down. Even before the weekend game, O'Mullan was singing the blues after defeat to Westmeath and Carlow.

"It's something I have said, and I have said it all along, it is a reality check. No other county in this league would have been able to cope with what we have had to cope with. We are missing eight or nine of our top players," he said.

"It's not do-able. We have talent, but it's all very young and needs nurtured."

The easy mistake to make is that this attitude is somehow connected with the sitting manager of an Antrim hurling team. However, the attitude of some players has gone from the oft-quoted 'coke and crisps' culture to the even more dangerous outright apathy.

Former Antrim boss Kevin Ryan said this at the height of the Championship summer last year: "Even in the last month or two, players that you would want there can't commit and some lads that are there are struggling to commit to the time, even allowing for their desire to be there."

In 2014, he let us know the figures we were dealing with in terms of the Under-21 team that made it to the previous year's All-Ireland final. He said: "Last year, we asked 52 lads in and got 17 of them. I ended up with just 10 or 12 of those 17.

"Last year, we had seven lads at the first Under-21 training session."

Mind you, he was getting well used to the prevailing attitude. He left his previous job as Carlow manager and turned a three-hour round trip into a seven-hour one to take over Antrim.

What did he find?

"I probably believed it was a bit stronger up there, with more passion and more commitment. That would have disappointed me initially but I always felt that the hurling was there. It absolutely is," he said.

The potential is certainly there. The experiences of clubs such as Creggan, Loughgiel and Cushendall shows that Antrim sides can compete at a high level.

O'Mullan has taken his own club Loughgiel Shamrocks and encouraged them to dream big. They responded. It took them a few years, but they got there eventually.

Time for him to break out the blueprint again.

Belfast Telegraph

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