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Shiels reflects on a survival job well done for Antrim

By Declan Bogue

Even before a ball was pulled on Antrim knew exactly what their year in Division 1B would comprise of; hard lessons and harder work.

At the launch of the hurling leagues in Belfast in mid-February, team captain Neil McManus spoke of his foreboding.

"This is a new start for this team. The expectation levels from anywhere in the county about Antrim are very low," he warned.

"We believe that we will definitely produce a few shocks along the way and start the process of Antrim climbing the ladder."

Another theme he touched upon was that Antrim fans would have to be patient, but that was slightly overstated as in general, they came through a tough league campaign schedule greatly encouraged by most of their performances, culminating in the four-point play-off win over Carlow that ensured their survival on Sunday.

A late surge from Limerick in the first game cost them away from home, and while there might have been a small dip in the levels they reached against Dublin and Wexford, they finished the league strongly, beating Carlow by ten points away from home.

The two-point loss at home to Offaly has since been questioned by many for the tendency of referee Alan Kelly to award handy frees to the midlanders with an Antrim victory in sight.

"We thought we could get an away win at Carlow and thought we could sneak a home win and maybe avoid the play-off, as it happens we nearly did because we nearly beat Offaly and we would have avoided it," is the assessment of wing-back Paul Shiels.

He is being realistic when he reveals, "Sunday was something we had to prepare for.

"We had looked at it with a couple of games left in the league, so it was no surprise that we were going to be in the play-off and we were well-prepared for it."

And while the bizarre finish to the Offaly game caused much comment and even the leading line in Antrim attacker Shane McNaughton's newspaper column, Shiels maintains that the fall-out has been dealt with and already forgotten.

"It's water under the bridge now, it doesn't matter," he said.

"We are still in 1B and that's where we wanted to be.

"We can just look forward to the Championship now and prepare for that."

Such is the nature of the Leinster hurling Championship that Offaly have to wait ten weeks before their opening game; the semi-final against Kilkenny, while Antrim are in action in a little under three weeks against Westmeath on the other side of the draw.

The benefit of being out again so quick was seized upon by Shiels.

"In a way, it was a good thing the play-off, because it was a good competitive game," he added,

"We have three weeks now to prepare – it's not a long lay-off but it is a good enough time to get some injuries cleared up and get everything sorted."

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