By Kevin Herron
Down hurling selector Tony Austin admits it is often difficult to come up against his native county and players that he has helped coach in the school settings.
The St. Mary’s CBGS PE teacher and Antrim native is involved in the Down set-up with Ronan Sheehan and will hope the Mourne -men can taste further success this season when they take on Kildare in the Christy Ring Cup Final at Croke Park on Sunday (4pm throw-in).
Having beaten Derry in the National League final to gain promotion Down are guaranteed to be part of the Joe McDonagh Cup next season and could possibly come up against Antrim.
Austin has faced his native county in the McGurk Cup this season and more recently in the recent U-20 clash between the sides last month in the Leinster Championship and admits to having mixed emotions.
“It was very, very difficult when we played in the McGurk Cup to actually come up against Antrim and being an Antrim man” admits Austin.
“A lot of the lads from St. Marys CBGS were on the Antrim team and to turn round and put yourself up against that challenge it was difficult to encourage the Down lads and shout at them to get the breaking ball in front of an Antrim man. But you just have to have a good work ethic about me and drive the lads on to get the best out of them”.
“They’re a smashing young team to work with and have a lot of potential in them- hopefully in the next number of years. We might have a number of challenges in the next couple of years against Antrim if we get the chance to come up and play against them. In the Christy Ring the two finalists go up to McDonagh and I would relish the challenge in the next couple of years to come up against the lads from St. Marys”.
Austin has come up against a number of the lads he is now working within the Mourne county as joint manager of many of the St. Mary’s CBGS Mageean Cup teams with Eddie McToal.
In 2012 St. Marys claimed their 30th Mageean Cup success with a win over the newly amalgamated An Dun side under lights at Casement Park. A number of current Down stars played their part that evening under the guidance of Antrim native Micky ‘Wing’ McCullough and current Down manager Ronan Sheehan as Austin recalls.
“We played An Dun in the 2012 Mageean Cup Final when myself and Eddie [McToal] took the team”.
“Again, coming back to my breading and work ethic – I got a lot from Ed- anything ]I’ve ever got I’ve got from the best and Eddie was the Saffron man himself who represented Antrim at both football and hurling over the years”.
“A number of the current lads were involved that night, the Savage brothers were in that team and CT [Caolan Taggart] may have been involved. ‘The Wing’ [Micky ‘Wing’ McCullough] was involved with An Dun- another Antrim man and the current manager of the team on Sunday Ronan Sheehan was on the line that night”.
“It’s funny now the friendships you’re making with teams who would have been rivals over the years. Now they’re working exceptionally well for me and for the betterment of Down to bring their hurlers on. At the end of the day we would like to be there with the Rossa’s, Lámh Dhearg, St Johns and all those good teams”.
Austin will hope the tables have turned since that evening and he can play his part in helping Down to glory at GAA Headquarters this weekend although he acknowledges Kildare will provide a stiff challenge.
“We’ve a big challenge on Sunday against Kildare” Austin believes.
“We’ve played them on a number of occasions, they’ve beaten us and a number of other times we’ve had the edge on them. It’s a one-off game in Croke Park and it will be something special for our lads. I think we’ve won it once in five attempts so it’s a big, big game for us”.
“They’ve a tremendous attitude, they work hard and give you 110 percent. It’s nice to have another Antrim connection in Oisin McManus involved. Pat McManus was involved with me years ago and gave me my first hurling stick- he was the Rossa chairman along with Joe Quinn and they blooded me in Gaelic games at the Falls Park a long time ago. Pat gave me the experience of playing with Rossa since I was U-12 along with Joe Quinn. That’s where I built my work ethic and my essence of GAA on the Antrim men”.
Although Austin is an advocate of the pre-season McGurk Cup tournament he is also keen to see a return of the Ulster Hurling Championship in the not-so-distant future and believes the carrot-stick of playing in a newly renovated Casement Park would be a big attraction.
“I would like to see a return of the Ulster hurling Championship” says Austin.
“It would get you strong competitive games, Antrim have done a lot of smashing work to get back to where they should be and where they belong. Down would like to be back and competing with strong teams, Tyrone and Monaghan would be the same- they’re all putting a lot of effort to get hurling back into Ulster”.
“Why not give a chance for young lads to experience the Ulster stage- maybe in a couple of years Casement will be open and they will be able to turn round and put a game on at Casement. The McGurk Cup is brilliant and it gives us games, we’re not having to go down south to look for games. You’re getting quality games every other week and at the end of day the lads want to play hurling and be involved in strong competitive games”.
“Again I always have mixed emotions, it’s the hardest thing to go onto the opposite line to play against an Antrim team. A number of weeks we played the Antrim U-20s in Ballycran and a number of lads from the school were playing for Antrim like Daire Murphy and past pupils like Dominic McEnhill. It’s difficult to shout at the Down lads to beat an Antrim man to the ball. But after the game the lads were over to shake my hand and I was delighted”.
We at the Saffron Gael would like to wish Tony and the Down team every success on Sunday. Also good luck to Donegal in the Nicky Rackard Cup final