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Gleeson relishing task of inspiring Saffrons

 

Challenge: Darren Gleeson, in goal for Tipperary, sees bright future for his Antrim team
Challenge: Darren Gleeson, in goal for Tipperary, sees bright future for his Antrim team
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

If such a thing as a 'GAA Bucket List' exists, there's a good chance a visit to the Antrim senior hurling final could make anyone's shortlist.

Above hurling's own Mason-Dixon line between Galway and Dublin, it is the biggest hurling occasion of the year and holds several fascinations. When the two tribes of Dunloy and Cushendall pitch up at Ballycastle tomorrow, the maroon-clad hordes will take over the bank closest to Fair Head, with Dunloy sticking to the other side in perhaps the only voluntarily-segregated county final in the GAA.

It's place among the hurling world is finally gaining wider recognition, with the TG4 cameras coming along to broadcast the game live.

Those inside a goldfish bowl - and the Antrim Hurling Championship is certainly one of those - will never tire of the perspective of those looking from the outside in.

For new senior county hurling manager Darren Gleeson, he offers the assurance that the fascination spreads as far as his own county Tipperary.

"Straight away when you mention Antrim hurling to the Tipperary hurling public, they recognise there is a great club championship up there. They all know the club teams up there and they all know the players, they roll off the tongue as well," he says.

Gleeson was recently confirmed as the new Saffrons manager, with last year's holder Neal Peden moving into a newly-created Director of Hurling role over the last month.

As a player, Gleeson showed remarkable patience to eventually take over as Tipperary goalkeeper and succeed the long-serving Brendan Cummins, achieving an All-Ireland win as starting goalkeeper in 2016.

In coaching, he has shown much more alacrity in obtaining a county job at just 38.

"I think it is a really good move for me," enthuses the Portroe man.

It gives me a step up the ladder into inter-county hurling management, with what I see as one of the top hurling counties in the country, that has a huge appetite to grow the game."

Gleeson has been a feature around the Antrim panel since his club-mate and former manager Liam Sheedy - who was helping the management team of Sambo McNaughton and Woody McKinley as an advisor - convinced him to chip in with some goalkeeper coaching in March of 2018.

His remit of responsibility expanded greatly last year with the management reshuffle after McNaughton and McKinley stepped down and Peden appointed Gleeson as head coach.

There are always concerns with someone handed a job of this kind with such a geographical remove that they will not have their finger on the pulse, but Gleeson has been immersing himself in the club championships at all levels.

"I've been really impressed with it. I've been impressed with the grounds, how organised it is. The ground, the job that the clubs like Ballycastle do on the day of the county semi-finals, it was seamless," he says. "So that's a real positive thing, it shows a vibrant people who take pride in their clubs and their hurling.

"Then, take the matches themselves. The intensity and the level of fitness that the clubs are at, the level that they can play at, the skillset is really high.

"We will have a huge job picking 35 players for pre-season. There's a huge amount of talented players there ranging from the junior teams up as far as senior.

"There are some diamonds there that you can take out of the smaller clubs. The intermediate championship, the Carey and Sarsfields game was a cracking game of hurling. It could have gone either way and the talent was not short that day.

"We didn't have anyone on the senior hurling panel from Carey or Sarsfields the year gone by, so there is talent there.

"The game previous to that, the St Enda's and Glenariffe game, that was a really good game of hurling, some fast ball. Great passages of play and fantastic scores."

If all of that sounds encouraging to Antrim ears, then it should be. In the past, managers have come in and been impressed with the health and passion of the club game, though have run into problems in trying to harness that at inter-county level.

As a starting point, though, Gleeson feels he has plenty to work with.

"I think there's a huge hunger and ambition in Antrim. That's the really interesting thing about it, the people you are meeting on the ground, the ordinary GAA people that you are meeting at the games," he says.

"They have a huge hunger for hurling and just a funny thing to that, I was over at the back of the stand in Semple Stadium for the Tipperary and Limerick game. And I met two boys from Dunloy walking around the back of the stand and I had a quick chat with the two boys about Antrim hurling. There is such a huge appetite for hurling and what they are crying out for is a flagship team for them to get behind and support.

"It's too big a hurling base not to have a flagship county team."

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