By Brendan McTaggart
This Saturday Antrim travel to Croke Park with redemption on their mind and their chance to take another step in the right direction. A chance for more silverware and the chance to right the wrongs from 12 months ago.
After an unsuccessful league campaign in 2016, the management team of Dominic McKinley, Terrence McNaughton, Neal Peden and Gary O’Kane came into steady the ship. In 2017 the Saffron ship has made progress, cleared shallow waters and on Saturday they are looking to go full steam ahead.
Carlow stand between the Saffrons and their third piece of silverware this season having already secured the Division 2A crown with another Ulster title. It’s fair to say that the Barrowsiders are familiar opposition already this season and opposition who will present Antrim with a stern examination. But after a controversial defeat to Meath at the same stage last year, the Saffrons are a different animal in 2017 and joint manager ‘Woody’ McKinley attributed the Saffrons turnaround to the pain of defeat in Croke Park when he told us: “Last year was a bitter disappointment not just for the players and us as managers but for everyone concerned with Antrim hurling.
“In the off season we re-evaluated what happened and where we went wrong and we came up with a charter basically on what we expect from players.”
A lot has already been said about the gruelling pre-season the Antrim hurlers were put through but McKinley told us that it was an ends to meet the means: “We felt that last year we threw away eight, nine and ten point leads. That’s simply something that shouldn’t be happening. We had a look at that in particular and we just thought that the commitment wasn’t there. We felt that the problem was also more of a mental block on how to win tight games but there wasn’t enough coming from the players and we went to work on that.
“We’ve asked for commitment and honesty from the lads and we think that they’re showing that they have the right ingredients to take Antrim hurling forward looking ahead. They are showing a unity and togetherness and what we have now is players who are willing to do whatever it takes to win when they’re wearing an Antrim jersey.”
It’s a 14 months since the current Saffron management team took over and Woody told us that they are now starting to see the style of hurling they want from the squad: “It does feel like we have more of our own stamp on the team this year. It felt like we were always playing catch up last season but we feel like we know the players more now and know what we can expect from them.”
It’s the fourth time in 2017 that the Saffrons will play the Barrowsiders and if the previous contests are anything to go by, Saturday’s Final will be an absolute cracker. A draw in Carlow on match day two of the league was followed by a Saffron victory in the league Final six weeks later. Goals from Cushendall duo Eoghan Campbell and Neill McManus helped Antrim to a three point victory after staving off a Barrowside onslaught in the second half. The sides faced off recently and most memorably in the opening round of the Christy Ring Cup and although Antrim left the Netwatch Cullen Park with the win, it came after extra time and after the Saffrons had looked dead and buried in both normal time and the additional extra time. One point separated the sides after 90 epic minutes of hurling. Woody told us that they are under no illusions as to the size of the task that face them at Headquarters: “Look this isn’t going to be easy, far from it. We’ve played Carlow plenty of times in the recent past and it’s never been easy. Just look at this season. We drew with them during the league and yes we got over the line in the league final and the Christy Ring opener but we needed extra time and we had our backs against the wall big time.”
Woody continued by telling us that it was the recent match against Carlow where they noticed the change in mind-set and a willingness to fight for the Saffron shirt right to the end: “We started off well in that game but they came back into it and we really had to dig deep on more than one occasion to get over the line.
“We’ve shifted the onus back onto the players when it comes to this type of thing and realistically the performance and character shown against Carlow in that match was all down to the players. The management team didn’t really do much for the turnaround and that was particularly pleasing.
“The players have grown and matured as the season has progressed but I think that comes from winning matches as well.”
McKinley told us that they won’t be springing too many selection surprises ahead of Saturday’s contest and they have a full fit squad to choose from, adding: “You could probably pick our starting 15 for Saturday now whereas last year we were chopping and changing a lot. We’re keen to keep consistency in selection.
“Most teams are built around 12 or 13 players and you’ll get the two or three positions that are up for grabs, we’re no different as things currently stand.”
Antrim have had some injuries concerns since the comprehensive Semi-Final win against Down and during the season and while it is good news for some, Woody confirmed that it may be too soon for others when he told us: “Conor (McKinley) is fit. He’s been out training fully for the last few sessions and is available for selection, as is Shorty (Paul Shields). Both will be in contention for starting places.”
“We’ve been carrying knocks and niggles throughout the season and the physio’s are probably the hardest working members of our team. They’ve been flat out.”
We had injuries in the defence with Stephen (Rooney) and even Ciaran Clarke up front. Both have had ankle knocks so we went out and had a look at a few players. Matthew Donnelly has been a real surprise package for us this year and he’s worked tremendously hard to get his fitness levels up. He’s been there or thereabouts but the match is looking like it will come too soon for him.”
Woody and his team have decided to call up Cushendall defender Arron Graffin ahead of the Final and the Saffron joint manager told us that they were forced into action as the niggles and injuries began to mount: “The panel was never closed at any stage, we’ve said that from day one. Bringing Arron into the squad felt like a no brainer to be honest. He’s one of the best defenders in the county and he’s a player who certainly wouldn’t weaken our team in the slightest.”
The Saffrons have made progress on the pitch in 2017 and Saturday presents their third outing at Headquarters in 12 months but McKinley told us that Antrim are moving in the right direction off the field also when he added: “Ahead of Saturday’s Final we would like to thank the clubs for their cooperation and help. They’ve been brilliant in rearranging matches to give us more preparation time and they’ve certainly played their part as have the County Board.
“With Saffron Vision the funds have been raised to allow not only us but the development squads to make progress. Please God we can deliver a win on Saturday and if we do it will be as much to do with them as it is us as management.”
These two sides know each other inside out. It’s not often club teams would play each other four times in just five months so for two counties it is somewhat rare. Antrim have the upper hand with the recent results and probably more importantly ahead of Saturday, they have the upper-hand psychologically as well, especially after their recent encounter. Carlow had Antrim beaten, twice, but the Saffrons came back from the brink and recorded a memorable victory. The scars from that defeat will run deep and Antrim have been improving since. Their victory over Down in the last four was every bit as comfortable as the score line suggested and was in stark contrast to the victory over the Ardsmen at the same stage 12 months earlier when it took a goal keeping clinic from Chrissy O’Connell and a nine point turnaround in the second half for the Saffrons to make the Final.
It promises to be another epic battle but Antrim have what it takes to bring the Christy Ring Cup back to the Glens for the second time in their history.