Mild optimism from Saffrons for big year
Best has yet to come insists skipper McManus but patience is watchword for new-look side
When Antrim initially gained entry to the Leinster hurling championship five years ago it was felt it would prove a stepping-stone to better things for the county and for Ulster.
But since then the Saffrons have encountered difficulty in negotiating the initial stages of a competition that never actually catches fire until the traditional big guns – Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly and, more lately, Dublin – enter the arena.
Yet the thought, dangerous as it is to entertain given recent history, that Kevin Ryan's side might just catch a wave this term still persists.
That very thought, indeed, could become more of a fully-fledged belief should the Ulster champions chalk up their third win in this year's competition at the expense of London when the teams meet in Ballycastle tomorrow.
Back-to-back victories over Westmeath and Carlow, both far from being giants of the sport, have triggered the mildest optimism that home advantage, a freshly-tuned work ethic and a repetition of the smart finishing which has characterised their brief journey to date might just ease the Saffrons into an even better place.
Not surprisingly, caution rather than brashness is the keynote of a side which sees itself as being charged with fashioning a better image of the province in a hurling context.
Captain Neil McManus has experienced his fair share of ups and downs but is quick to credit manager Ryan for, what he describes as his, "courage and foresight."
McManus, one of only a handful of players remaining from what might be termed the old guard, is convinced the best is still to come from the side.
"Kevin came in and undertook a survey of the players we had and then came up with the mix which now makes up the team," explained McManus.
"He made it clear that there would be no overnight success and called for patience.
"He has got a tremendous response from the players who are all very committed and we are beginning to see the results of his handiwork."
"He has shown courage and foresight in the way he has gone about his business so far and the hope is that we can build on the progress we have made."
With Paul Shiels in stunning form – he scored 11 points against Carlow last Sunday – and P J O'Connell who got 2-3 in that contest right on top of their game, Antrim boast two lethal marksmen while McManus himelf and Conor McCann are also adept at garnering scores.
Neal McAuley and Aaron Graffin, along with Conor McKinley, provide defensive experience which will certainly be required against a London side noted for being able to cash in on even moderate possession.
London have had just one outing in the Leinster series to date, their match against Carlow ending in a draw, and will come to Ballycastle anxious to make up ground in the round-robin series.
They will be accorded a warm welcome off the field but the pleasantries will stop there.
Meanwhile, Derry manager Ger Rogan is urging his team to provide the best antidote to their humiliation at Kerry's hands by getting the better of Down in the Christy Ring Cup today.
Like Derry, cup holders Down were bushwhacked in the opening round when Meath proved their masters and now both Ulster counties are seeking a restoration of credibility.
"I'm glad this game is coming up so quickly because we want to get last week-end's disaster out of our system," maintains Rogan who keeps faith with the nucleus of the side that collapsed in Tralee.
Ruairi Convery, Oisin McCloskey, Michael Warnock and the Hinphey brothers Liam and Kevin are key figures in a Derry team desperately anxious to get back on the straight and narrow.
Down boss Gerard Monan, disappointed that his team surrendered to Meath, is hoping that they can show a more concerted effort today particularly in terms of their finishing.
Paul Sheehan, Scott Nicholson and Daniel Toner are players to whom Monan is expected to look for scores while Conor Woods continues to show excellent form at centre-half-back and Conor O'Prey is also a force at midfield while Sean Ennis and goalkeeper Stephen Keith continue to impress.
Derry: D McDermott; M Warnock, L Hinphey, E McGuckin; P Cleary, K Hinphey, A Rafferty; B Og McGilligan, T McCloskey; C McQuillan, A Grant, A Kelly; J O'Dwyer, R Convery, O McCloskey.