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Under-fire Antrim facing uphill battle

By John Campbell

When Antrim initially entered the Leinster senior hurling championship, it was hailed as a breakthrough for the sport in this part of the world.

Such had been the Saffrons' dominance of the Ulster Championship down through the decades - it's still manifest, of course - that it was thought they should be afforded the chance to test their skills in a more demanding environment.

So when, along with Galway, they were pitch-forked into the Leinster series the feeling was that Ulster would reap benefits.

But today Antrim find themselves in a sorry plight. With two matches played in the round robin series that is the precursor to the Leinster Championship proper, they have managed to pilfer a last-gasp win against Laois but have surrendered to a Westmeath side that still remains well outside the top tier of the sport.

Now the pressure has been heaped on manager Kevin Ryan as he fixes his sights in an all-or-nothing clash with Carlow on May 24.

And a damning catalogue of statistics does nothing to provide the merest glimmer of hope for a mission that is fraught with danger.

They lost seven league games before making the drop into Division Two and their 17-point mauling at the hands of Westmeath was accompanied by the loss of two of their most experienced players, captain Neil McManus and defender Aaron Graffin, to injury.

Carlow, too, have already beaten Westmeath in the round robin series which, on the surface, would appear to render Antrim's task even more hazardous.

The Saffrons had understandably hoped to cross swords with some of the bigger guns in Leinster such as Wexford, Dublin or Offaly but such an eventuality seems to be as far away as ever.

For manager Ryan, the task of rekindling morale will require supreme man-management skills as well as an inherent belief in minor miracles.

While his policy of blooding fresh talent has paid off to some extent with players like Ciaran Clarke and Conor Johnston beginning to shine, the team's defensive structure and work-rate consistency give cause for concern.

Prior to Sunday's setback against Westmeath, skipper McManus admitted that it was "a massive game". But the manner of their downfall has sent a shock wave through the province.

"We just didn't show up," admits manager Ryan. "Yet everything was so good going into the game. All the players trained well beforehand and were flying. I can't put my finger on it. We had a few lows and thought we had turned the corner against Laois."

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