McKenna: “We’re not going down to make up the numbers”

Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Quarter-Final

Antrim vs Dublin

Date: Saturday June 26 Time: 3pm

Venue: Pairc Tailteann, Navan

Referee: Liam Gordon (Galway)

By Brendan McTaggart

The Christy Ring has come and gone and the epic journeys through the McDonagh Cup has been negotiated.  Finally, Antrim have finally made a return to the Liam McCarthy Cup and the Leinster Championship after a five year absence.

Pairc Tailteann awaits the Saffrons and a rematch with the Dubs who accounted for Darren Gleeson’s men comfortably in Parnell Park just five weeks ago.  Eight points separated the sides then as Antrim didn’t hit the heights and standards they have set themselves in recent seasons.  It’s not often you get a chance of redemption so soon in the beautiful game but there’s no doubting it will be in the thoughts of the players and management as they prepare for Saturday’s clash with Dublin.

2021 was always going to be an acid test for Darren Gleeson’s men.  Making the step up from Division 2 is massive but the Saffrons have performed exceptionally.  One ever present in the starting 15 this year and outstanding performer for the Saffrons has been Niall McKenna.  Now considered to be one of the more senior members of the squad after celebrating his 27th birthday this week, the Sarsfields man has been leading by example this year.  A powerhouse, workhorse and a player with graft and guile in abundance.  McKenna has been playing for the Saffrons since making his debut in the 2013 Ulster Final and has been enjoying the best form of his career in a Saffron shirt for the past two seasons.

McKenna gave us his summary and thoughts on their League campaign: “What got what we wanted.  We held our own and that was our objective. 

“If you look at the team this year, we have a lot of young boys in the team and this year was great to get them that experience.

“We secured our status for next year and we’re in a better position now.  But we’ll continue to push and keep Antrim going forward, getting better and going in the right direction.  Antrim is definitely going places.”

In a campaign that had many highs and numerous pivotal moments.  Like many of us, McKenna struggled to pinpoint one moment that could define the league season for the Saffrons: “We got something from every game and every game we felt there was turning points.  In the majority of the games we went behind and came back and showed our spirit and character.”  He continued: “The Kilkenny game stands out.  We clawed our way back but just couldn’t hold on but the first game against Clare ultimately gave us the belief.  That win was massive for us and gave us a major boost in the arm.”

Barring a run of unexpected results, Antrim had the job done after their epic draw with Wexford at Corrigan Park.  A match that had everything and thankfully some faithful Saffron supporters were there to witness one of the games of the year.  Points shared on the day when all three results were possible, you might think it was a satisfactory 70 minutes work but McKenna felt differently: “It was bizarre.  The final whistle went and the roar went up around the ground.  I thought I read the score board wrong.  Yeah I suppose it more or less secured our status in Division One for next year but that game felt like a defeat for me.  I was disappointed with the draw and a lot of the lads were too.”

Against the Dubs in Parnell Park, Antrim looked a tired side.  It was the third match at this level inside 14 days and it showed on the day.  The zip, the intensity, the work ethic wasn’t there.  Dublin looked a step ahead throughout the game and while McKenna acknowledges they were second best on the day, the Sarsfields man told us they feel like they’ve learned from that contest already: “There’s no way you can read too much into that game (Dublin).  Don’t get me wrong, Dublin are a good side and will start Saturday as favourites but we did not perform to our standards at all that day.  When you look at all our performances in the league, the Dublin performance is the one where we just did not perform at all.

“We didn’t play the way we had planned.  It just didn’t happen and we reverted back to our old habits but hopefully we can learn from that.  I feel like we did learn from it against Wexford so hopefully we can continue that again on Saturday.”  The Antrim star continued: “Like I said, they’re a good side.  They move the ball well and are a physically big and strong side but if we play our own game that we’ve been working and our game style, we’ll perform better than we did in Parnell Park.”

McKenna has been there and saw it all so far in an Antrim shirt at either side of the glory spectrum.  He’s better placed than most to cast his thoughts on the current camp as they prepare for the Leinster Championship once again: “There’s a definite buzz.  Everyone is training with confidence and challenging for positions.  It might be a cliché but no-one’s jersey is safe.  Training is competitive and everyone is driving each other on.  Everyone has that goal to do their best for Antrim.

“Dublin has been our sole focus since the Laois game.  It’s how we’ve treated every match this year, we’ve never looked further than the next game.

“It’s the Championship so you can’t help but get excited.  We know it’s not going to be a walk in the park in Navan and we know we’ll have to play to the best of our capabilities but we’re not going down to make up the numbers either.  We’ve done the work and hopefully it’s enough. “

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