By Brendan McTaggart
So often over the past 12 years, one man has carried the hopes of Antrim going into battle. Neil McManus. The Cushendall man has had to watch on the side lines as Antrim took their Joe McDonagh campaign by the scruff of the neck. Yesterday however, the Ruairi Og man got the call: “Massively frustrating (being injured).” McManus said: “I haven’t been injured properly in a long time and it was different for me to try and come back and get to the stage where I felt I was ready to go at it 100%. It was a bad hamstring tear and at one stage I thought that was it for the year but the boys reassured me, I had a chance. I wasn’t going to make any of the Joe McDonagh games bar the final and that’s the way it turned out.”
When introduced in the 45th minute, Antrim had just got back on terms but McManus’ introduction spelled the start of Antrim pressure where they outscored Kerry by five points to one in a seven minute period with Neil himself chipping in with two of his four points overall in that period. He told us: “I was just delighted to be able to play a very small part in the final. Finals are a difficult day for everybody, especially with the age profile of this group. This panel is incredibly talented, amazingly talented actually and there’s a few of us older boys who are needed to just keep the lads on an even keel. Keep playing hurling the way we should.
“We did things today and made mistakes that we just don’t make normally and kept carrying it carrying it for long periods. I haven’t seen the possession stats but I’d imagine we were well ahead, it felt like we dominated the game for long, long periods.
“Kerry probably didn’t perform massively well but our mistakes kept them in it.
“The job of the boys in the team my age was to help those boys to be at ease in those type of situations, that was my goal coming on the field. To say: This is the same thing we’ve been doing all year. Keep doing it and the result will come.”
Unfortunately for him, McManus has been better placed than most to assess this Antrim sides performances during this campaign. He highlighted one individual for high praise when he told us: “Some of our performances were exceptional. The best performances that we’ve strung together in a number of years. Simply because in the past we have been able to put on an exceptional day here and there, but this year our bottom limit was good and sometimes very, very good week after week.
“Coming back against Carlow, I think we were seven down to get a draw. Against Kerry when they were fancied to turn us over for some reason in Corrigan after we beat them in the league final. To be 3-6 to 0-7 up early on, we hit them like a train.
“I’d be buoyed by what I’ve saw from Ciaran Clarke this year. I genuinely believe he’s one of the best forwards in the country.”
So what has been the difference? What has happened for Antrim to gain the consistency they strived for in recent years: “The big difference is the squad. We have a squad we can rely upon. Look at the players who weren’t used today.
“We’re a long, long way away from when Gary O’Kane was ringing around trying to get boys together for the match against Wicklow in Abbotstown. He rang me that morning and he knew we played St Thomas’ in an All-Ireland semi-final but he asked me to come for that game. If anybody deserves today, it’s Gary O’Kane.”
Antrim wins in HQ’s have been few and far between. McManus has been there through the good and not so good times but he agreed, playing in Croke Park will always be special: “When you get to an All-Ireland in Croke Park it adds nostalgia to it. Antrim have delivered some great performances here in the early 2000’s under Dinny Cahill. The likes of Kieran Heron, Karl McKeegan. In 2010 I was lucky enough to be involved with the likes of Johnny Campbell and Karl Stewart, it’s incredible to think that’s 10 years ago. Hopefully those days become more prevalent.”
In the most uncertain of years, it was the most surreal of victories. Euphoria but with fans missing from the stands, McManus told us that those fans were never far from their minds: “On Wednesday night Aileen answered the door and it was Donal and Patricia Kearney with a card for the team to wish us all the best. To say Donal and Patricia haven’t missed a match in the past maybe 50 years is an understatement. They travelled to New York for the Antrim game against New York in the Ulster Championship in 2003.
“For people like that, for people who couldn’t get to the games this year for very obvious reasons, this is massive. When I drove past their house this morning I gave the side of the door a wee rattle and said ‘this is for Donal and Patricia’.”
So where does yesterday rank in the career of Neil McManus? Is it up there with the best achievements of his illustrious career? He told us: “It does and it doesn’t. I was euphoric at the final whistle but this is just the ticket to get to the top table. I would have incredible faith in the group of players that are in that room behind us at the minute. I am known for being confident or for backing myself against most but this team doesn’t know how good they are and that’s regardless if I am involved. I’m telling you for the future, they don’t know how good they are. They haven’t really thrown off the shackles yet, today was not a star performance from this team. It was a winning performance and that’s the important thing but there’s so much more to come. Today was a stepping stone.
“We’re in the Leinster Championship so we’re no further ahead or behind the likes of Kilkenny, Laois, Dublin, Wexford and Galway at this point of time. If we could consolidate our position in Division One of the league and in the Leinster championship, the sky’s the limit for this group of players.”