True Grit can make Antrim Hurling history

Denis O’Hara’S preview of the All Ireland Intermediate final in the Irish News back in 1970

“I don’t see any reason why they should not win” – this is the view of former Antrim hurling great Jimmy Walsh on Sunday’s All-Ireland Intermediate final between his own county and Warwickshire at Croke Park, writes Denis O’Hara.

Jimmy, a 50 year old proprietor of a Belfast taxi firm is one of the links with Antrim’s last big bid to win All Ireland glory in a major hurling completion. That was back in 1943 when they were swamped by Cork in the senior final. He added – “I’m convinced Antrim can do it. They have the ability and just that extra grit will make it easy. It doesn’t matter very much about the start so long as they play a steady game. I cannot see how Warwickshire could have the measure of Antrim. Dublin were a hard side to beat. In fact they have always been a difficult team to overcome in any grade. What Antrim did against Dublin they can do against Warwickshire.”

Jimmy Walsh in his Belfast taxi office in 1970

Jimmy, a colourful character during his hayday openly admits that he lost faith in Antrim hurling when the team collapsed to a second string London side in the Junior final eight years ago.

“I never went back to see Antrim until now. I felt so disgraced. I’m convinced they then had the ability but lacked good sideline mentors to make switches when necessary. Matches are often won through switches. Teams like Kerry and Dublin are experts at it. It can certainly pay dividends but Antrim have always been notoriously afraid to make changes. This present Antrim Hurling team is doing very well and it is certainly a pleasant change. Justin McCarthy has done quite a lot but I personally think that Chairman Seamus Clarke and team manager Neil Patterson deserve utmost credit, I was glad to see Seamus Clarke take up office this year.

Unless Warwickshire ‘pack’ their team I cannot see them winning on ability. If Antrim are beaten it will be their own fault. I personally go all out for an Antrim win and I will be very surprised and very very disappointed if they do not live up to their ability”.

The poignant summing up by wirey Walsh who looks as fit as he was during his playing days holds a clear-cut message for the Antrim side. They have displayed a new zeal for the game and that in-born natural hurling ability which has been smothered by indifference and lack of confidence down through the years, has at least emerged to the surface.

Not for some time has a team played with such united effort. Their display against Dublin was a cut above the ordinary yet it would be a tragedy if the delayed decider should feature the players in the old haphazard mould which has cost the county so many deserved triumphs.

Somehow I do not think that the Ulster Champions will underestimate the opposition.  Their almost unbelievable spirit has developed the side into a real tiger, hungry for success. Their record this season has been a succession of improving standards starting with the National League Division two title last April when they whipped last season’s Intermediate champions, Kildare.

Down fell at Ballycran in the Ulster final. This achievement was followed with a morale boosting win over Galway and then on to that memorable meeting with Dublin.

Players and mentors of the Antrim 1970 side, photographed the week before the final in 1970. Top, L-R: Tony Connolly, Chris Elliott, Seanie Collins. 2nd row, L-R; Sean Burns Eamon Hamill and Frank Smyth (Hurling Board Secretary). 3rd row, L-R; Neil Patterson (manager), Danny McMullan (trainer), Jim McClements (Selector). Bottom row, L-R; Aidan Hamill, Nial Wheeler, Kevin Donnelly

One man who was not completely convinced with his team’s display in the semi-final is manager and selector, Neil Patterson. The stocky ex-county full-back considers that the best all round performance was against Galway – “The boys played well against Dublin but not every player was up to scratch. They can still play a lot better and it is an overall display of determination that I’m seeking from them on Sunday. I’m personally worried about Warwickshire as I know nothing about them. They must be good as it takes a reasonable side to beat Kerry in their own backyard. I think however that we are still capable of taking the cup. There is a great spirit in the team, something like a well organised and determined club.  The enthuastic turn out at training sessions is an almost unheard of thing in Antrim hurling”.

The combined determination of the players has provided the true basis for success so far. Sunday should contribute the deserved reward. But the team, still glowing from that Dublin victory would do well not to underestimate the opposition. For so often Antrim have flopped when least expected.

The driving force of hard-talking Justin McCarthy should however erase the slightest hints of complacency among the players. This will be their toughest test and it may well call for every ounce of reserve and skill to defeat the confident exiles.

What Antrim must realise and respect is the fact that Warwickshire have won the All-Ireland Junior title in the last two years and with different line-outs. Antrim do not have to go too far back in history to see just where they failed when the title was set up on the platter for them.

Warwickshire cannot be blamed for coming to Croke with a fair slice of comfort. They have upset the odds before and according to their Chairman Mick Houilhan they expect to win.

“We make no secret of the fact that we had spies at the Antrim-Dublin game and they feel sure that we can win. I think we will just about pip Antrim at the post. We should break even on fitness as the boys have been very faithful to the training programme at Birmingham. We have been hurling together with the same panel more or less, for the past three years and the present side has welded into a close-knit unit. Five of the team played in last year’s Junior Final – Grimes, O’Brien, Hanley, Dalton and Moore while most of the remainder were on the successful Junior team of ’68. Out trainer, Billy Collins from Limerick has been in charge for the past three years and he is a fanatic for fitness and I think this is what stuck to us in the last two years. While football at club level is scattered here we have five senior hurling clubs and three junior sides, which I consider, is to our benefit and helps to make a better county team. I know Antrim will make it tough for us. It should be a great game and I’m confident that we can win our third final in succession”.

On the way to the final, Warwickshire defeated London to win the cross Channel title and then shocked Kerry at Limerick in the All Ireland semi-final.

Hero of that game was 22-year-old bank clerk Con Danagher, a former Limerick minor star. Danagher is listed at top of the left and the man with the job of curbing this dangerman is Dunloy’s ‘quiet man’ Chris Elliott who missed the Dublin game due to involvement in a car accident.

The visitors, however, will miss the services of injured half forward Mahoney but there is still a solid complement of experienced hurlers to give Antrim a bag full of problems.

Mahoney was outstanding at centrefield in the Junior final but he lost his place on the Intermediate team to the ever improving 26 year old Factory worker Jim Moynihan who partners 24 year old joiner Des Dillane. Mahoney however was the driving force of a fluent attack. “He will undoubtedly be missed,” admitted Chairman Houlihan. “But there is nothing we can do about it. O’Keefe, his replacement is a much more experienced player although it will be a question of pace as far as he is concerned”. At the back 22 year old joiner Dan Breen once had a trial with Tipperary while right back Jim Quinn from Galway (also a joiner) had no county experience before leaving to England.

Pat O’Brien a 25 year old bricklayer is also relatively untested according to Chairman Houlihan while Jim O’Brien is an ex Wexford minor star.

The oldest player in the team (28 years of age), O’Brien a factory worker, is a strong player, Hanley, 21, Dalton 23 and Ryan 21, form a very effective half back line while the attack has efficient marksmen in Willie Rogan, an ex-Limerick minor and corner forwards Larry Moore and danger man Danagher. Full forward Finbarr Gantlet has no previous county experience with his native Galway. His cousin Fr. Gantley, former All Ireland senior star is well known in Antrim having XX coaching courses some years ago.

Antrim players training in Loughgiel the lead up the final in 1970

Antrim splendid mixture of youth and experience will hardly be overawed by the reputation of the champion of Britain. Long serving players such as Sean Burns, Paddy McShane, Seamus Richmond, Brendan McGarry, Aiden McCamphill and Nial Wheeler have given better than they received in recent exchanges with so called southern might both at county and provincial level.

Team Captain Burns, a 30-year-old forklift driver, is the man to guide the side to historic success. He has the ability, along with exuberant Sean Collins, a relative youngster who plays with a mature, reckless abandon, to gain a firm grip on centre field.

The defence has doggedness, which will be hard to beat. Now tired and trusted, it should be nevertheless not be overworked as was the case for part of the first half and closing minutes v. Dublin.

The attack while extremely lethal will have to step up its work rate.

Brendan Garry has returned to his best ever opportunist form while Eddie Donnelly can discourage most defences with his powerful running.

Eddie, however, will be under a slight handicap following a hip injury but his never say die spirit should inspire the rest of his colleagues.

Andy McCallin and Aidan Hamill are capable of combining to throw the Warwickshire defence into total disorganisation while Paddy McShane and Seamus Richmond have the experience and power to operate as ‘can openers’ for the speedy McGarry, McCallin and Hamill.

It is all a question of attitudes. Antrim must go into this game with a fervour never before required. They travel by coach on Saturday to join Justin McCarthy at Jury’s Hotel. Incidentally, reserve J.P.McFaddan, a 21-year-old Loughgiel starlet, was married this week to Miss Collette Smith, daughter of former Dunloy ace Willie Smith.

J.P. will join the panel in Dublin while all Antrim followers of the game will travel in their thousands for the game.

For so long the hurling enthusiast in the North reserved his interest mainly for All-Ireland senior encounters between crack Southern teams. The opportunity to urge on an Antrim tram has been a rare occurrence but the team’s exploits this year has instilled a new interest in the county. So much so that top clubs such as Dunloy, Cushendall, Ballycastle and Loughgiel have arranged coach tours to facilitate the fans. There is also an excursion train lined up by the Antrim County Finance Committee leaving at 8.50am.

Neil Paterson, team manager, has made a special appeal to the real hurling fans to come and back the team that has at last come in from the cold.

Neil incidentally celebrates his 41st birthday today (Friday). “The birthday present I really wish for,” said the Cloughmills contractor, “is to cheer the boys off the field with the cup. I think they will not let me down but it will take a great effort from every player concerned”.

For quite a number of years I have been personally involved with Antrim hurling teams of one kind of another but never before have I seen such a dedicated and determined band. I feel that their hard work, a long overdue bid to bring some resemblance of hurling prestige to the North will not go unrewarded.

A ‘final’ word from Antrim county Treasurer Jack Rooney who is confident that Antrim will make no mistake “I agree that the boys did not play as well against Dublin as they did in Galway and I think we will see them at their best on Sunday. I would say that they are happy with the venue and that game has at last taken place. The delay may upset them a little but I doubt if it will make the slightest bit of difference in the end”.

Antrim – John Coyle, Chris Elliott, Kevin Donnelly, Eamon Hamill, Nial Wheeler, Tony Connolly, Aidan McCamphill, Sean Burns and Sean Collins, Seamus Richmond, Eddie Donnelly, Aidan Hamill, Brendan McGarry, Paddy McShane and Andy McCallin.

Warwickshire – Dan Breen, Jim Quinn, Pat Grimes, John O’Brien, Mick Hanley, Liam Dalton, Tom Ryan, Jim Moynihan and Des Dillane, Pat Shiels, Seamus O’Keefe, Willie Hagan, Larry Moore, Finbar Gantlet and Con Danagher.

Referee – Paul Kelly (Dublin)

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