Antrim hurling finds itself back in the spotlight after a stunning victory over Dublin in Croke Park to set up Sunday’s All Ireland quarter-final against Cork.
It was a marvellous display that revived memories of 1989 when they actually reached the All Ireland final.
Sambo McNaughton, who played that day against Tipperary, was especially pleased as his son Shane figured against Dublin.
He has no doubt that Antrim hurling is back in the big time.
“They are now in the top six teams in the country so they are up there with the elite,” he said
“They got the draw they wanted this year and possibly they rode their luck but they are there and good luck to them. You have to remember they are a very young side and they desperately needed a big scalp in Croke Park.”
McNaughton, though, is realistic in his assessment.
He notes there is still a gap; Kilkenny continue to lead the way followed by Tipperary, Galway, Waterford and Cork.
“The game against Dublin was poor enough but it was only the second time in my life I came out of Croke Park with a smile on my face,” he said, referring to Antrim’s 1989 All Ireland semi-final success at the same venue.
“No matter what happens against Cork on Sunday, we’ve made progress.”
Antrim county chairman John McSparran takes a more measured view. His perspective is that Antrim are still very much a work in progress.
“You can’t say on the back of last weekend’s victory over Dublin that we’re back in the big time,” McSparran cautioned. “It depends on how you define big time. Were we ever in the big time? We’re now in the last six in the All Ireland championship and that could be construed as progress.
“Are we going to go on and be realistic challengers for the Liam McCarthy Cup? I believe it’s a wee bit too soon for that. Even the odds are against us progressing much beyond Sunday.”
A hurling man through and through, he has seen enough false dawns to do him a lifetime.
But in the victories over Down and Carlow, as well as the performace against Offaly, the Antrim chairman observed definite and reassuring signs of progress.
“It’s difficult to put your finger on one particular reason for our improved fortunes,” McSparran stressed. “Certainly the return of Dinny Cahill as manager has had a positive impact.
“His coaching ability is unquestionable and in addition he has brought with him two guys from Cork, who have added a significant dimension to the whole set-up. Don’t forget Gerry Wallis has been involved with a number of the highly successful All Ireland teams.
“And in addition many of the successful minor teams of a few seasons back have matured into quality players alongside men the calibre of Karl McKeegan and Ciaran Heron.”
Jim Nelson, who masterminded Antrim’s run to the 1989 All Ireland decider, is thrilled with the Saffrons’ resurgence.
“In their last three championship games they had to come from behind and that showed great resolve. It made Antrim people realise that we had a team worth getting behind,” he said.
If Nelson has one criticism it’s
that Antrim supporters have been slow to back the hurlers in the past. “The thing that pleases me most though is that Antrim have again proved they can live with the
top sides,” said Nelson. “I’ve always believed in Antrim hurling in the sense that we have some quality hurlers. What goes against us is the fact that geographically we’re out of hurling’s mainstream, the main hub where hurling is played.” Win, lose or draw against Cork on Sunday, Nelson remains convinced Antrim hurling is at last moving in the right direction.
Antrim team to face Cork on Sunday: C O'Connell, McGourty, Donnelly, Delargy, Shiels, Campbell, Herron, Stewart, McNaughton, McCrory, McManus, McCann, PJ O'Connell, Watson, McKeegan.
Antrim v Cork
(August 6 1984)
The Saffrons were written off to such an extent that there were no cameras in Croke Park for what was an incident packed All Ireland semi- final.
Cork would you believe scored seven goals and 11 points with Antrim replying with a goal and 24 points.
Manager Sean McGuinness had worked the oracle in preparing the side, but he hadn’t quite counted on Antrim shipping those seven goals and additional points.
But five points was all that separated the teams at the finish of an unforgettable game.
Antrim lost but made lots of new friends with their spirited approach.
Antrim v Tipperary
(September 13, 1989)
Croke Park was a sea of colour on the day the Saffrons took on the might of Tipperary in the All Ireland hurling final.
There was no fairytale ending as Tipp’s artistry and class won the day and Antrim were left with nothing but their memories.
And yet it was to prove a seminal moment for Antrim hurling in that it laid the foundations for a return to Croke Park two years later against another of hurling’s super powers Kilkenny.
Antrim v Kilkenny
(August 12, 1991)
Jim Nelson’s side were within seconds of pulling off one of the greatest upsets in hurling against the Cats.
Nobody outside Antrim even dreamt of an upset. Kilkenny were one of hurling’s elite, a side blessed with numerous All Stars, men who were legends in the sport.
Producing their best ever display at Headquarters and showing little regard for Kilkenny’s status or reputation they played like men inspired.
With only seconds remaining and the game seemingly destined to finish level Kilkenny broke Antrim hearts with two late points.