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Peden brings new angle to Antrim's bid for hurling triumph

Antrim v Carlow, NHL Division 2A Final: Pairc Esler, Newry, Today, 3.00 pm

By Declan Bogue

Terence McNaughton is a man never known for holding his tongue so I'm sure Neal Peden will take his 'praise' when it comes.

"I slag Neal as being the educated one of the four, he is a schoolteacher and he has hair so he is kind of the outsider. All the rest of us are bald and stupid!"

So said the man better known as 'Sambo' of Peden, another member of the four-headed beast that is the Antrim senior hurling management.

We already know the key players of that group. Sambo along with Dominic 'Woody' McKinley have been here before. And Gary O'Kane we know as the youngest Saffron on their 1989 All-Ireland final team.

Peden is less well known, but no less impressive an individual in his job as Head of Physical Education in Rathmore Grammar, and the man combing the video and statistics for Antrim.

Most people would be unaware of the depth of his involvement with the county hurlers. He played for years with the three others in Saffron under Jim Nelson, and for St John's for 35 years.

When his knee blew out - a legacy that remains with a knee replacement two summers back - he was brought in by Nelson as a physical trainer and selector almost 20 years ago.

"He knew I was a hurler too, and he didn't just want me to be a physical trainer, he wanted me in as a selector too. Of course, once that was mentioned I said yes, that's what I would like to do," he said.

"I was pretty young going in, but I knew going in with Jim Nelson I would learn a lot."

At that stage he was also managing the Queen's hurlers and St John's seniors.

Little wonder that when he and Joan had three children, he parked his involvement with club and county. He started focusing more on work, with Rathmore being one of the top schools in Northern Ireland, and - as befits a man who has four football Championship medals - he was also taking the Gaelic football team.

Rathmore now are one of the few schools that retain hurling as part of their curriculum right through from Key Stage 3.

Now that his children Luke, Amy and Ryan are either just graduated, graduating or studying in Queen's University, he has the time and space to get back involved in county hurling.

It all came about in odd circumstances. When PJ O'Mullan stepped down after the league campaign, the Antrim county board recruited a Barbershop Quartet of former players from Cushendall (McNaughton), Loughgiel (McKinley), Dunloy (O'Kane) and the city man, Peden from St John's.

They reached a Christy Ring final. Expected under the circumstances, but then the season took a weird turn when the scoreboard got it wrong and Meath were presented with the Cup. Then the GAA ordered the game to be replayed. And Antrim still lost it.

They couldn't leave it at that.

"Losing the Christy Ring was hurtful to us because we felt that we had the team that could have won," he said.

"From a hurling perspective, we had the hurlers. The team from a fitness perspective just wasn't right and couldn't cope with the intensity and extra-time in the first match. We felt there was business that needed to be completed."

So when they were asked back, they knew they had to make changes. As the only man who played football among the management team, Peden always felt footballers trained harder than hurlers.

They brought in former Down All-Ireland winning captain DJ Kane to take a six-week block of training, during which the hurls were parked in the dressing room.

It taught the management about who really, really wanted to be there. It taught the players a lot about themselves.

"From where we were, we needed to do something," he explained.

"We decided that we wanted everybody to get the intensity of workrate through a physical training camp first. And if we could monitor that and see the capacity of what they could do, then we would bring that to our hurling training."

He continued: "It was very important that our training was very hard, and certain people did drop out because they felt, or I feel, that they weren't able to cope with the intensity of what we were doing. And that was their choice.

"They dropped out themselves and what we were left with was the committed group."

What will intrigue many in the GAA is just how the Antrim management co-operative functions.

"You have four men who have led teams in their own right. You have four individuals who love to be leading it," he said.

"I think it works through talking. We have certain styles and we have things we can offer. I am coming in from a different background to hurling. Terence and Dominic, I mean, I love coaching as well, but Terence and Dominic and Gary, we are all into how we want the team to train and so we take leads at different times.

"I would say Dominic and Terence lead the coaching sessions, Gary comes in then and takes certain sessions. I come in from an angle that I look at a lot of the video of matches and take statistics of matches and then try to bring that in."

Most importantly, their egos are not left unchecked; they are not all stumbling over each other.

"If one talks, then we leave it at that," he stated.

The novel approach has brought them to the Division 2A league final, played today in Newry.

This year there is no consolation promotion/relegation play-off for the losers and a second chance to reach 1B.

It's win or bust.

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