Clarke and Antrim determined to build on recent progress
Ballycastle man’s Player of the Month award an acknowledgement of Saffrons’ encouraging league form
Ciarán Clarke with his PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month award for May in Ballycastle, Co Antrim. “We believe we can compete with these top teams.” Photograph: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Any expectation that this weekend’s final round of the Allianz Hurling League is nothing more than the last support act before the main event of the summer may ring true in certain counties, only Ciarán Clarke begs to differ.
The gentle rise and unquestionably competitive nature of Antrim hurling has been one of the headline stories of the season so far, and Clarke has no intention or desire for it to end now.
Already safe from relegation, their final round league game against Laois on Saturday offers another chance to prove they are here near the top and to stay.
Antrim’s progress in 2021 gained further recognition with Clarke being named the PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month for May for hurling, receiving his award at his home club Ballycastle, a rare prize for the county no matter what time of the year.
Clarke has been central to Antrim’s competitiveness on their return to Division One, hitting 1-11 against Clare in their opening day win, a haul which included 1-1 from play.
“Beating Clare, we probably didn’t think we’d perform that well and at the weekend there we’d Wexford, came away with the draw, and it kind of felt like a defeat,” says Clarke.
“We felt we could have got the win, so there’s a good buzz in the county, a few supporters in at the weekend too, which gave us a good lift.
“The thing that’s different this year is we believe we can compete with these top teams, can go far. Since Darren [Gleeson] has come in, as over the last couple of years, it has been a very professional set-up, you want for nothing. It’s also probably the first year we’ve had all the county players available to us, they want to commit. We’ve 36 on the panel, for the first time ever, and people wanting to come onto it.”
The desire to sustain it all into the championship is hardened by the fact Antrim competed well against Dublin in round three of Division 1b, before losing 1-26 to 1-18, Dublin being their Leinster quarter-final opponents on June 26th. Laois play Wexford in the other quarter-final, that side of the draw presenting a real chance for progress.
“Of course you always want more, and the thing for us now is not being happy with what we’ve done. You want to win your last league game, then give a good account of yourself in the championship. So I wouldn’t take it as a successful season at the minute. You want to do it in the championship.
“Dublin we know are a big strong team, but we know every game is going to be tough, whether it’s Dublin, Wexford, or Kilkenny. Once you get a good performance we shouldn’t be too far away, no matter who we’re playing.”
At times Antrim have made it difficult on themselves, especially in the loss to Dublin and Kilkenny, though they arguably finished just as strong.
“That shows maybe we have the fitness, and the strength and conditioning. We also have six forwards who start, but we have six forwards on the bench who could come in just as easily.”
They’ve also made Corrigan Park something of a fortress in Belfast, although it is no Casement Park, the continuing redevelopment at the latter, which has had funding allocation, of some frustration it seems.
“Whenever I was growing up, you’d be going to Casement Park, having the big Antrim games there. So for the younger generation, that can play a big part, seeing the other big county teams coming there, seeing progress, and where they want to be.
“The first year I came in senior was the year it was shut, so I only ever played a few games there. There are so many twists and turns, we’re getting it then we’re not getting it, but you’d like to hope we’ll be back playing there some day.”
There is also the sense Antrim don’t want this period to be another short-term progress. For a few years though it seemed as if they might never break out again from the Christy Ring or Joe McDonagh Cup, perhaps never feature again in the Liam MacCarthy, although again Clarke begs to differ.
“I don’t think it was the thought at the minute, though we always thought we could do it, if we had the right management, the right players, and this year everything just came together nicely.
“I think the management have really instilled the belief that we are as good as the other players, and other teams. I think the main thing Darren has done is the belief, we just needed to believe it, and I think once we realise we can compete, can challenge, we are just as good.”
Whatever about that desire to win a championship game this summer, Clarke isn’t thinking at all about relegation, even though unlike the Munster championship, where for another year all the counties are safe against relegation, Leinster still has that avenue.
“It’s not something we’ve talked about, we’re just looking to win our first championship match, and make sure relegation isn’t even in our mind. Same with this league, we never talked about relegation, we just wanted to finish as high up as we could.”