Antrim back in hurling’s top tier thanks to health of club system

Sunday’s win against Clare was their first over an established hurling county since 2012

Antrim’s Ciarán Clarke celebrates scoring a goal during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1, Group B win against Clare at  Corrigan Park in Belfast. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Antrim’s Ciarán Clarke celebrates scoring a goal during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1, Group B win against Clare at Corrigan Park in Belfast. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

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Antrim’s storming return to the top divisions of the Allianz Hurling League is creating optimism that a new start is possible for the county, who in the past 25 years have slipped from guaranteed All-Ireland semi-finalists to the second grade of the hurling championship.

Back at the top in both league and championship after a barnstorming 2020, winning league promotion and the McDonagh Cup, Antrim hit the ground running on Sunday by defeating Clare, who were unbeaten in last year’s group matches, overcoming an early deficit and slugging it out, point for point, in the second half for a famous win.

County chair Ciarán McCavana says that many people in the county have been slightly disorientated by the fall from grace.

“Maybe people my age – I’m 46 – believe Antrim should be at the top table but realistically you only get there by winning games. We’ve done that, stepped up but that’s only by putting in the hard yards with our development squads and our under-17s and under-20s to ensure we stay there. In the past we were a bit in denial and hopefully now we’re putting in solid foundations.”

He pinpoints how the growing strength of the club game is helping.

“Antrim club hurling is getting stronger and stronger. If you look at last year’s championship there were five clubs: Loughgiel and Cushendall from the glens, Dunloy, just on the periphery and then St John’s and Rossa in the city. There was just a puck of a ball between the five.

“There’s a good spread of city and county.”

The county hadn’t beaten an established hurling county since the first day of the 2012 league when they defeated Wexford.

Much credit for the impetus has gone to former Tipperary goalkeeper Darren Gleeson, who arrived in Antrim to help Tipp manager Liam Sheedy with some coaching sessions and was ultimately offered the manager’s job.

“His CV as a player is impressive and he came up here with Liam Sheedy. He did his first year with Neal Peden (Antrim’s first director of hurling) and then took over. It’s worked really well. I think the boys appreciate his commitment. He’s coming up here three times a week from Tipperary.

“So I suppose nobody’s complaining about having to come 30 miles to training!

“He appreciates that we’ve given him the chance to manage an intercounty team. We saw something in him after he’d done his two years up here. He’s done a great job and we’re very happy with him.”

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