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McKinleys out to make some new hurling history for Antrim



Fully focused: Conor McKinley is inspired by former Antrim players, but claims that having his father Dominic as his manager does not affect him

Fully focused: Conor McKinley is inspired by former Antrim players, but claims that having his father Dominic as his manager does not affect him

Fully focused: Conor McKinley is inspired by former Antrim players, but claims that having his father Dominic as his manager does not affect him

Although he was just ten months old, Maureen McKinley wasn't going to deny her son Conor a chance to see the 1989 All-Ireland hurling final.

Especially as his father, Dominic, who goes by the nickname 'Woody' (his son has since inherited it like a family heirloom), was manning the centre-back berth for Antrim in their fabled loss to Tipperary.

"I wouldn't have known too much about it, but I was there anyway," laughs Conor now.

"I have seen it since in video clips and so on, so that is what inspired what Antrim hurling is doing nowadays. You always hear about it, and you are jealous, because you want to create your own legend. You want people talking about you, but you just had to look at the calibre of men hurling in that team and look up to them."

Now, Conor is the man named in his father's old position, getting ready for Championship action today against Meath in the newly-minted Joe McDonagh Championship. And he leads the team out as captain for the first time under the summer skies in Navan.

"Without being too clichéd or anything, (the captaincy) was something I always dreamt of, just playing for Antrim, but then to lead Antrim was something I always wanted to do. That extra responsibility put on you is great."

Looking from the outside, some might see a layer of awkwardness there, with Woody Senior part of a four-man management team that includes Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton, Gary O'Kane and Neal Pedan.

That's not the case, insists Junior.

"To be honest, I don't look at him as my father when it comes to hurling," the 29-year-old states.

"Of course, he is my father, but on the training pitch I just see my da as the manager and there is no awkwardness at all. It was actually Sambo that approached me and said to me.

"I had no notion at all, so that's as much as me and daddy might talk about those things outside of Antrim."

Fathers and their sons can be a unique relationship in Gaelic games, forever cursed with accusations of favouritism, or a sense that the father is too hard on his own, in order to guard against it.

McKinley states: "We are very close, but we are different when it comes to hurling, it's a coach-player relationship. Of course there are a few conversations over dinner and that of course, but there was no awkwardness about it at all and I am sure daddy would say the same."

If things were different, they would do a whole lot more with each other outside of the game. But then McKinley, who works as an estimator and designer for Woodland Kitchens in Rasharkin, uses his estimating skills to put a figure of 36 hours of work per week, along with 36 hours of hurling when you take into account training, meetings, recovery and travelling around the country in service to the Saffron jersey.

"We would go and watch matches and they would be hurling matches," he jokes at their extra-curricular activities.

"But we have our interests. You try not to talk about hurling if you can, because you have to get that balance right."

He continues: "To be honest, the only spare time I have is taken up with hurling. I think that is a big problem, it's just the way things are going but I think it is a big problem in the GAA. You have to do that or else you fall behind.

"Really, if you do have a bit of spare time, you are thinking about recovery. It's all based on the next game and the next session. If you don't put 90% of your time into it, you are going to fall behind."

During his rest periods, he will pick up books on sport and delve into the psychology behind the performance.

He has shelves at home full of titles with the stern faces of the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Johnny Sexton staring back out. Anything to pick up a refreshing way of looking at the art and science of winning and losing.

One book that struck a chord recently was 'Bounce' by Matthew Syed, a nuts-and-bolts deconstruction of the myth of what 'talent' is, and how practise matters more. For an Antrim hurler having swam in the shark-filled waters of Division 1B this Spring, it made for several moments of discovery.

Take this weekend. They face Meath, who have had Kilkenny hurling legends Martin Comerford and Michael Kavanagh working with them from pre-season. But as McKinley points out, they can only coach, not play.

"Of course they have the two Kilkenny lads with them, but just because they are from Kilkenny and they have plenty of All-Irelands, we have just as good a coaches and managers with Antrim," he maintains.

"There is no great secrets, or formula behind it. It is like anything in life and especially in hurling, you get out what you put in, so if you put bad work in, you will get bad performances at the end of it."

Antrim have had Tipperary's All-Ireland winning manager from 2010 occasionally as a guest coach this season.

"Liam is not doing anything different to what I have been taught underage what coaches are telling you. It is just a different voice and that helps," McKinley says.

If anything, he would argue the case that Antrim are guilty of is selling themselves short, year after year. Recently, Neil McManus made the bold claim that Sambo McNaughton is as good a hurling coach as anyone in the country.

That's the kind of confident talk that McKinley has no problem backing up.

"We don't really appreciate the hurlers we have and the coaches we have about the county," he said.

"Everyone is hurling mad. The thing we have a lack of is belief."

And he refers to the first league game of the year against the All-Ireland champions as a remarkable example.

"Even going back to the Galway game, we were two points up with 10 minutes to go. It is that extra bit of belief to drive it along that stopped us from winning that game. It is about trying to change that.

"You can see from our results in 1B - barring the Limerick game - that we can compete with the best in Ireland. It is coming from within. The culture has to change because we are as good as anyone."

And it starts now. Another year. Another Antrim.

Belfast Telegraph