Hurling: Antrim aspire to more than survival battle
EVEN allowing for the allotted period of navel-gazing over the winter, Ulster hurling has had quite a time of it.
There was the 'Team Ulster' debate which seems to have stalled and then a most embarrassing episode of the Ulster senior final being delayed until a couple of weeks back.
With the return of the National League, attentions once again tend to hone in around the fortunes of teams.
The overall agonising over what role, if indeed any, Ulster has within the greater world of hurling can wait.
There is no doubt that those sampling the delights of Antrim hurling this year will be stimulated by the familiar surroundings of north Antrim. With Casement now out of bounds, McQuillan Park in Ballycastle will fling the gates open for the visit of Wexford this Sunday and later, Cork.
With attendances expected to multiply and untie behind a young team, captain Neil McManus spelt out what their expectations for the league campaign entail as they approach the programme of games.
"It's about being competitive in the division, as opposed to surviving in the division. That would be the aim for the league this year," he says.
"We have more players who have not played National League before and then there is another group who have just got a year under the belts. That's massive because it is a massive shock to the system, playing the league in the first year."
A lot of work went in to the physical development of Antrim last year, something that should not be forgotten when assessing Kevin Ryan's first 12 months.
Their backroom compares favourably to other county set-ups aspiring to break into the top tier. Paul McKee, the former International runner who is in as a fitness coach would mirror the role that former 800 metre Olympian Dave Matthews plays in Cork.
Ryan also has Sean Hawes, the former Clare minor in as goalkeeping coach to work with Chris O'Connell, who returned to county duty after providing cover for DD Quinn during Loughgiel's derailed All-Ireland bid.
Some weeks ago, midfielder Jackson McGreevy described the bedding-in and hardening-up period that the first season in senior inter-county brings. His work has been backed up by a winter spent with a promising team of Jordanstown hurlers.
"I definitely would say I am fitter than last year. The physical training that we are doing is showing in most of the players coming through, not just me," said the St Gall's clubman.
"You see it in the running off the ball, in the workrate off the ball. That's when you see the fitness."
Fitness is one thing, but as the Saffrons are well-aware, they are well short of experience.
At present, the veterans' bracket takes in players that not that long ago were hailed as a new generation. Now, the likes of McManus, Shiels and Simon McCrory are the old stagers.
It all requires patience.
"The under-21 team of last year has countless players that can come onto the team. They have all proved themselves at training that they can come on as seniors. Then there is a good mix with established senior players," was McGreevy's take.
Once again, Antrim plea for patience. It would do harm if they can send up the odd flare to reward it all the same.