Young Saffrons go into the unknown with familiar opposition

Leinster Championship U20 Qualifier

Antrim vs Down

Saturday October 17 @2pm, Ballycran

By Brendan McTaggart

“We got together the Thursday after the hurling final and it was the following weekend we were hit.”  C19 – wreaking havoc all around the country and Antrim U20’s best laid plans and as their manager Karl McKeegan told us, it’s put them on the back foot ahead of their Leinster Championship qualifier with Down.

“Four lads tested positive so for the better part of three weeks, we’ve had to self-isolate.  We got back out again last Sunday and it is a shame as you can see from this group of players, they’re mad keen and a committed bunch of lads.

Antrim U20 manager Karl McKeegan (left) and assistant Johnny McIntosh

“Back in February when we were together, whatever we asked of these lads, they’ve done it.  I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever worked with a better bunch of lads.  We were getting over 30 to the sessions and the lads really were buying into what we were trying to achieve.”

Then lockdown hit and the young Saffrons, like the rest of the GAA world, were in a waiting game.  McKeegan continued: “We were kind of in limbo.  Will we be playing, when will it be? We didn’t know and then when we got the date, we were hit with the positive results.  It’s the nature of what we’re having to work with now.

“But last Sunday, we had 24 out training with the three who are carrying niggles were there and the four who tested positive are still isolating.  Those who should be there, were there and in all my years playing and now coaching, that’s all I ever asked for.  If you get the commitment on the training pitch, that will transfer onto the field of play.”

With Conal Bohill, Ryan McGarry, Declan McCloskey, Seaan Elliott, Niall O’Connor and Niall McCormick forming part of what on paper is a strong starting 15, the young Saffrons should start Saturday’s tie with Down as favourites.  18 year old Dara Murphy’s cameo’s for Rossa in their run to the semi-finals of the senior championship did enough to get him into the squad along with Caolan McKernan from Sarsfields.  McKeegan stressed, the commitment is there but for him the most important aspect comes from within: “The lads have to enjoy representing their clubs and county.  If you don’t then you have to forget about it.”  He continued: “Most of the panel would come from Loughgiel but there’s a mix from all around the county.”

The gap from club hurling finishing and the county season started, on paper should have been ideal.  The positive test results meant McKeegan’s men couldn’t get any form of challenge games so realistically, they are going into Saturday’s game in the dark.  They will have to pick their team from the work done in February and March and the few sessions they have been able to get together in the past month or so.  Something McKeegan has rued: “I have Big Johnny (McIntosh) and Brian McFall in along with me and they are two superb trainers.  How they convey themselves to the group and get their point of view across to the players, you can see the lads are buying into it and learning from them.  It’s a shame we couldn’t get more time with them as Johnny and Brian are top drawer coaches.”

The Cushendall man told us the U20 grade needs more attention or the dropout of players moving form minor to senior will increase: “They have to do something with the U20 grade.  Very few of these lads played senior hurling this year and if we’re not careful, a lot of these lads could end up walking away from the game.  There has to be something put in place that will keep them hurling.  I don’t know what it is but there needs to be something done.

“We’re looking at this game and if we win it’s next Wednesday night against Dublin.  Two games shoehorned in and that’s the next generation that we’re dealing with.”

With Down and a derby, there never normally is much between the sides but the Cushendall man told us he is cautiously confident: “I’m confident that the lads want it but so many of them have played very little hurling this year.  What I would say is anything we’ve ever asked of them, they’ve done it.  Every training session there has been 23 or 24 and upwards and they are mad keen.  I’ve no doubt that with the commitment they’ve shown to us, they will give it everything they have on Saturday.”   

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