McDonagh Cup Final Preview – Antrim vs Kerry
By Brendan McTaggart
When Conor McCann leads Antrim out onto Croke Park on Sunday he will be the first man from the South West to captain the Saffrons in a hurling final. (Not the first from the south west to play in one, as the 1943 team who played Cork in the senior final had three Creggan men on the panel, goalkeeper John Hurl and half-back Pat McKeown, plus Gerry McAteer who was among the subs.) A nice accolade to have but if you were to run that one past the current captain of the Saffrons, he won’t think too much about it. It’s just the type of person he is.
A quiet, unassuming gentleman off the pitch, a leader of men and a hurling beast on it. Conor McCann has been the leader and role model both on and off the pitch. The perfect captain.
When it comes to media commitments, the Creggan man never falters. He is measured and assured but speaks with pride on his role in the team and what he and his team have achieved this year. So Far.
But there is no getting away from the fact he is an extremely proud Creggan man and McCann knows the significance and potential impact him leading out an Antrim team in Sunday’s final will have in the South-West of the county: “It’s going to be a great occasion obviously for the team but for myself, my family and my club. It’s a nice honour.” Said McCann. “The people in the South West are very proud of their hurling background in general, the last few years we’ve been working hard in the area to build it up and having someone at this stage and standing will be good for the underage and give them something to aspire to. This is a good place to be.”
In the second year as captain, McCann has had plenty to deal with. None more bizarre then the introduction of ‘Zoom Training’ sessions as the Saffrons got to grips with the initial lockdown in March. However, the Antrim captain told us the experience and what the team came through together as individuals has helped to galvanise the squad even further: “There’s plenty of challenges along the way and it can be daunting enough but I like to think I’ve grown into it at this stage. The team are playing well and the groups came together well this season. It’s been a nice journey so far but the big one is the next game.
“We were three or four days away from the league final against Kerry in Croke Park, that was cancelled and we were very conscious that we had got to a certain level. We had built ourselves up for six months at that stage and we couldn’t let that go. The lads worked really hard during lock down with our Zoom sessions. We were given our own programmes to work away at and everyone stuck to it to a tee. It was difficult and the trainings were tough and hard but we were conscious that it was important for the players to keep focussed and work towards this. You could tell that togetherness has been there since the restart in September-October and the team have grew since then.”
The Antrim forward has hit a purple patch in front of goal with the last outing against Meath the first time since the Saffrons played the Royals in the league that he failed to find the net. A run of seven goals in six games and as you would expect, McCann praised the efforts of his team and the work rate further out the pitch before those chances came his way: “I suppose someone had to finish the chances but I would never take all the credit. There’s a lot of hard work and good play out the field that gets to that position and I’ve been lucky enough to be on the end of that play on a few occasions.
“We preach it every time, it doesn’t matter who’s on the end of the chances, as long as they’re going in and we’re taking them. It’s scores on the board for Antrim.”
It was six years ago since McCann played in Croke Park for the first time. A match that has been written into the folklore of the south west club. The All-Ireland junior club final against what is now a star studded Ballysaggart team from Waterford. An epic match where Creggan came back from 10 points down at half time with McCann equalising with a mammoth free in injury time before the match ended a draw after extra time. McCann joked: “I get reminded of that (equalising point) one a lot. But it goes down in Creggan’s history books and Antrim’s. We were playing against the likes of the Bennett’s. Stephen Bennett is flying for Waterford and he was really good then and we managed to get him ushered away in the second game.” He continued: “I have fond memories of Croke Park and it will be nice to get back out there again, albeit without support. It’s such a special place, especially this year with the commemoration and everything that’s surrounding that. Having our manager from Tipperary adds to that and it will be an emotional occasion but hopefully it’s one we can grow into and enjoy as a team.
“In the last few years Antrim hurlers have maybe struggled in Croke Park. The Carlow game and the Meath games before that. We maybe let the occasion get to us then and got wrapped up on the actual match and not enough on the performance. We’ll hopefully learn from that and take any lessons on board but this would be a fairly new squad compared to then. A new bunch have come in and new management so we’re hoping to stay in a positive mindset and get the right result for us.”
2020 has been an incredible year so far for the Saffrons. The Kehoe Cup final defeat their only loss in this calendar year. McCann has two highlights of the year so far: “The final game against Offaly where we came back and drew. We didn’t face them again after that but it was the manner in how we hung on and grinded out a result that day. That was our last game before lock down and since the league final we’ve really powered on.
“The couple of games we had up here, Westmeath when we lost players with covid. That was a massive turning point for us. We got a lot of confidence from that, knowing we went out and played really well against a side we’ve struggled with in the past, we made short work of them and the team has moved on from that.”
With a fourth meeting against Kerry and the Kingdom standing between McCann leading his side into the Leinster championship in 2021, the Creggan man told us there is little chance of complacency setting in, despite their 100% record against them this year: “We’re well acquainted with them at this stage and them with us. We’re looking forward to, you know, Kerry are a really strong team with a lot of class hurlers. They are very dangerous if we let them impose themselves on us. You look at Mikey Boyle, Shane Nolan, they are really strong and good scorers. We’ll be going in cautious but we’re hoping we can enforce our game plan on them. Get good rhythm in place, work hard and do everything that we’re training and working towards. Kerry are a good team and we won’t be taking them lightly but we’re trying to treat it as just another game for us.
“It’s a big occasion and you can try and play it down as much as you can. We are a young team and maybe only half of the squad have played in Croke Park, half haven’t. We’ll enjoy it. We want the lads to enjoy it, be themselves, express themselves the way they have done all year. Enjoy the occasion but don’t get wrapped up in it and hopefully our hurling will come through then.”