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Darren Gleeson has been central to Antrim's hurling progress, says Peden



In charge: Antrim manager Darren Gleeson (right) with Liam Sheedy

In charge: Antrim manager Darren Gleeson (right) with Liam Sheedy

In charge: Antrim manager Darren Gleeson (right) with Liam Sheedy

On January 11, when daylight was but a flicker, the Antrim hurlers held a training session at Queen's University's facilities, The Dub.

They were heading for Navan for a Kehoe Cup final against Offaly the following day, so things were pretty relaxed. Manager Darren Gleeson moved among them, observing for the most part rather than instructing.

When the session was complete, Neil McManus and Niall McKenna stayed on to practice their free-taking. Their efforts were comfortably clearing the catchnets but they were unaware that they were landing on a pitch over the far side with a soccer match in full flow.

The referee stopped the game and made his way to the Antrim players, who were stretching. Gleeson asked what the problem was and while the referee was explaining came a quip came from one of the players: "You don't have this problem down in Tipp!"

After all that commotion, Antrim's man-mountain forward Domhnall Nugent spoke for a prolonged period with Gleeson and the team nutritionist, Julia Bone.

The improvements in Nugent's game and physique were showcased last weekend when he racked up 1-2 in a must-win game with Kerry. It has now left the Saffrons with a trip to Offaly for a re-fixed match in Tullamore. If they avoid a 37-point defeat, they are in the Division 2A final against the same team.

Progress, for sure.

It's going back a few seasons now, but the road they are on began in April 2016 when former managers Terence McNaughton and Dominic McKinley were persuaded to take the senior management on again after the sudden departure of PJ O'Mullan jnr. They were assisted by Gary O'Kane and Neal Peden in what became a four-headed management beast.

O'Mullan's problems were eerily familiar to the previous incumbent, Kevin Ryan of Mount Sion, Waterford.

Back in 2013, he said: "I would be very disappointed in the overall commitment in Antrim hurling."

Reflecting on that a year later, he drilled down into the numbers.

"Last year, we asked in 52 lads and got 17 of them. I ended up with just 10 or 12 of that 17."

Midway through their first full season, McNaughton and McKinley recognised that they needed to sprinkle some stardust about, to act as a lure for some stay-away players. They brought in no other than Tipperary's 2010 All-Ireland-winning manager Liam Sheedy for 2018.

Peden stated now: "We had problems getting people to commit and wanting to be part of the set-up. We have had to change the set-up in the camp and Liam came in and gave us that whole professional approach and we have been trying to follow things he had said we could do for the team."

And once they had Sheedy, his Portroe clubmate Gleeson followed in time. First as a selector and coach, now graduating to front of house.

McNaughton and McKinley stepped aside at the end of 2018. Peden and O'Kane kept it going for continuity's sake and at the end of last season, Peden was appointed Antrim's first ever director of hurling. He was delighted to have Gleeson succeed him in the role.

"When I had Darren there last year we could see that Darren had all you need to be a good county manager. That's why we wanted to get him this year," said Peden.

"I had a real insight, being involved in the last three or four years, of what was missing in Antrim, what we needed to do. That's why we were so keen to keep Darren in this year and that level of professionalism in the role."

Few outside of Sheedy understand Gleeson as intimately as Michael Ryan, who joined the Tipp management under the former in 2008, was assistant manager under Eamon O'Shea and won an All-Ireland in 2016 with Gleeson between the sticks, conceding just five goals in five games while facing the best attacks in the game.

Ryan was excited upon hearing Gleeson was taking up the challenge of managing Antrim, with all the obvious problems that entails.

"What Darren does bring, and I got excited when I heard he was up there last year helping them out and going back up this year to be the manager, is an awful lot of personality. He is a really, really strong personality," he said.

"That's a positively strong personality. A big character. He loves the game and he is very good with his interpersonal skills. He's intense, quite like Liam in that he has a burning intensity when he is talking to you; he's nailing you. He is absolutely sticking you to the wall.

"That's the kind of conviction and passion he is speaking with. That's a massive attribute to have in your locker."

He continued: "All the goalies in the world will hate me for saying it, but you do need to be a really strong character to start with and Darren had that.

"So hearing that he is having a big influence on Antrim hurling right now is of no surprise to me."

Belfast Telegraph