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Declan Bogue: Antrim hurling is all set for lift-off

Ace in pack: Neil McManus will be out to inspire Antrim to victory over Westmeath in Dunloy on Saturday
Ace in pack: Neil McManus will be out to inspire Antrim to victory over Westmeath in Dunloy on Saturday
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Sitting in the gantry of Cusack Park, Ennis, the host of The Sunday Game, Joanne Cantwell, said after the opening preliminaries, "It's time for our weekly Joe McDonagh slot", before some well-packaged footage of the Antrim win over Offaly in Tullamore the previous day.

A couple of things - it has been said long and hard about second-tier competitions receiving no coverage in the national media. Perhaps the use of the word 'weekly' was a subtle reminder that RTÉ are doing their best within the time constraints.

The story here really wasn't so much Antrim's hugely impressive win, but Offaly's dramatic fall through several trapdoors to the point where they have lost three out of three games in the McDonagh Cup.

To his eternal credit, Offaly All-Ireland winner and RTÉ analyst Michael Duignan began his analysis with warm praise for Antrim's spiritual leader.

"Neil McManus is, for me, one of the best hurlers I have seen in the last 15 years," he said.

"I think he would make any other county team of any time, and seeing the way he led his team, his desire, his drive, he scored 10 points, seven frees in windy conditions…"

Other media outlets gave the McDonagh Cup its due. Another former Offaly hurler Brian Carroll was full of similar praise for McManus on the Joe.ie GAA Hour podcast.

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The point is, there's coverage there if you want it.

When McManus retires, you suspect it will be with his final breath as a county hurler. This Saturday he faces probably his biggest game for the county since he scored nine points in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final, when they have Westmeath coming to Dunloy for a group game that, should Antrim win, they will almost certainly be in the final.

Last week we might have questioned the overall culture of Antrim GAA in assessing how they meekly went out of the Ulster Championship with a foregone conclusion against Tyrone. The crowd of 5,409 said it all.

This is an opportunity for the support to show their hurling culture.

The game is fixed for Dunloy and the throw-in time was brought forward to 2pm to allow any supporters to make it to the football qualifier later on that day in Drogheda against Louth.

The thing about support is they have to feel their team is on the cusp of something.

Prior to the Ulster Football Championship game against Monaghan, Cavan manager Mickey Graham tapped into this, saying: "The one thing about Cavan supporters is, if you give them something to shout about, something to get them behind the team, they will do that, and I felt we didn't last year.

"You just hope that when genuine supporters see that the team are giving it everything, that they're passionate and playing with their hearts on their sleeves, the crowd will get behind them, no matter what way the game is going.

"I'd like to bring that back. Cavan are the most passionate supporters in the country."

There's no doubt the culture is there in Antrim. Few who were in Navan on the day Cushendall defeated Galway champions Sarsfields to reach the 2016 All-Ireland club final could forget the stirring and spontaneous rendition of 'The Green Glens of Antrim' their fans embarked upon at half-time.

Sitting in the dressing room, the players heard it and every hair stood on end.

That passion seemed to be in short supply last summer. In mid-August, the famous O'Donovan Rossa side from the city travelled to Cushendall for an all-county league game.

They lost 6-28 to 0-8.

"They had nobody to do umpire, nobody to do linesman," recalls Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton, Antrim's then joint manager.

"(Manager) Jim Close, who I felt sorry for, was standing on the line with one other adult and one sub."

Now, Close is part of the senior county management set-up, along with Antrim's leading hurler of the noughties decade, Karl McKeegan.

After McNaughton and Dominic McKinley decided they weren't going to continue on in the management team at the end of last season, many would have thought Neal Peden and Gary O'Kane foolhardy for staying on.

That hasn't been the case. After reshaping the management team, they went about reshaping expectations. For the first time ever, an Ulster hurling county embarked on a warm-weather training camp.

Through finances raised through their players' fund, they managed to get to the renowned Brown's Sports Complex in Vilamoura last month.

The road they travelled has brought them to here.

"The Offaly win was, psychologically, a big win for us against a traditional hurling county away from home," said an emotional McManus last Saturday.

Now, they have a big day in Dunloy. Anyone with Antrim hurling in their heart should be there.

Brilliant Championship shouldn't be taken for granted

Intricacies of the GAA rulebook, part 4,789 in a never-ending series.

If Saturday night's Ulster semi-final between Tyrone and Donegal ends level at the end of normal time, two 10-minute periods will be played. If it is level after all of that, then it will go to a replay.

The following day, Fermanagh are guests of Monaghan in Round One of the All-Ireland Qualifiers. If they finish level at the end of the 70-odd minutes, they will play two 10 minutes of extra time. If they cannot be separated at that point, then penalties will determine who goes through.

Straight after that, Armagh and Cavan will be playing their replay. If they once more take it to extra-time, two 10-minute periods will apply before another two periods of extra time, five minutes long.

And if they are level after that? Penalties. Same competition - sort of - same game, and three different ways to decide the outcome.

Anyway, this weekend ranks as one of the biggest in the history of the Ulster Council. With two semi-finals of their own Championship going on, you may not be aware that while the Monaghan-Fermanagh game is under the auspices of the GAA at central level, they still implore the small group of Ulster Council volunteers for all their stewarding needs.

Indeed, mass will be said this Saturday night in Kingspan Breffni by Fr Brian D'Arcy after the game for all those volunteers who will be expected to be in Clones in time for duties on Sunday morning - just as it was in the Athletic Grounds and at the Cavan-Monaghan Saturday night games.

It's easy to slip into hackeneyed mode about all of this, but there was an hour there from halfway through the second half last Sunday in Clones, until ten minutes after the game, where my hands were vibrating with pins and needles, just sitting there recording the key events of the game.

This has been a brilliant Ulster Championship, and with 40,000 expected at Clones and Breffni this weekend, it's easy to take for granted. Which is why it was so surprising and disappointing to hear one podcast this week dedicating time to talking about who played badly last weekend. Nobody deserves that.

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