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There's a hurling revival in Ulster and it's down to grassroots graft, says O'Kane


Fired up: Neil McManus is helping to plot Antrim’s promotion drive from Division 2A

Fired up: Neil McManus is helping to plot Antrim’s promotion drive from Division 2A

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Fired up: Neil McManus is helping to plot Antrim’s promotion drive from Division 2A

Whisper it softly for now but a hurling revival of sorts is slowly but surely taking root in Ulster.

Quietly, virtually unnoticed by the football-worshipping masses, no fewer than five counties have slipped into a position from which they can significantly bolster their status.

A truncated fixtures itinerary this weekend within the 'major sport' will see hurling hold the spotlight, and deservedly so, as recent progress comes under the microscope.

For starters, Antrim, with Neil McManus, James McNaughton and Domhnall Nugent spearheading the charge, look set to lead the way in terms of weekend of overall achievement when they take on Offaly, with the winners assured of a place in the Allianz League Division 2A final.

And if Derry, with Cormac O'Doherty an unstoppable force in their attack, beat Kildare, then they will meet great Ulster rivals Down in the Division 2B final.

Not to be outdone, Armagh and Donegal have already powered their way into the Division 3A decider, with the winners assured of silverware and a place in Division Two next year.

For a sport that was thought to be on its knees, this is a collective revival that has already spawned optimism and fervour not normally associated with it given that it tends to exist in the giant shadow of football.

The spontaneous upsurge in fortunes of no fewer than five county teams has already spawned the hope that this progress will filter down to club level and thus further cement the future of the game.

Former Antrim and Ulster player Gary O'Kane - he was in the Saffrons side that met Tipperary in the 1989 All-Ireland final - who is currently a member of Darren Gleeson's management team, is in no doubt as to just why hurling is taking a centre-stage role.

"I think that a monumental amount of hard graft has been put in at grassroots level and we are now seeing the benefits of this," states O'Kane. "There is no doubt that teams have been making a major effort to improve and offer a bigger challenge in the league.

"Look at Antrim, for instance. Last year we just managed to scrape together 26 players for our squad whereas this year we have 33, and when Darren Gleeson makes alterations, this in no way weakens the side, which goes to show the strength in depth we have.

"Then when you look at what Ronan Sheehan has done with Down, you see what can be achieved. The county has only three senior clubs, with maybe a few others thrown in like Ballela, Newry Shamrocks and Liatroim, but they are now ready to contest the Division 2B final, with Derry their likely opponents."

O'Kane believes that the emergence of the Ulster sides over the course of February has been one of the plus-factors in an Allianz League that has seen some captivating contests at different levels.

Antrim are certainly leading the way in terms of consistency, while Derry also remain undefeated under the capable baton of John McEvoy, and Down too have looked assured for the most part.

And Armagh and Donegal have been setting their own pace, according to O'Kane.

"Take Armagh - they drew with Tyrone last weekend in a titanic battle and that was enough to earn them a place in this Sunday's Division 3A final against Donegal, for whom Armagh native Declan Coulter is hitting the high spots.

"I think it's fantastic to note the work that players are putting in.

"Their fitness levels, stamina and physicality have improved beyond all recognition in recent years and that's because they have been prepared to put in a massive effort on the training ground and in the gymnasium."

And O'Kane is "absolutely sure" of one thing - the day of the dual player is gone.

"That's a thing of the past. You look at the way Cormac O'Doherty has been scoring for Derry lately even though he has scooped numerous honours with Slaughtneil in football, and you see Joe Maksey doing his stuff with Antrim after having shared in St Enda's success in football, and you know that commitment to the one code is essential. I am very sure of this," insists O'Kane.

With the prospect of more than one trophy likely to come Ulster's way, O'Kane believes that this can prove the catalyst for a further drive in the promotion of hurling.

"We all know that nothing succeeds like success and that's why I want to see Ulster teams bringing home the bacon."

Belfast Telegraph