Kevin Ryan keen for Antrim to make firm stand once again in under-21 hurling final against Clare

Coach maintains close-knit group can build on semi-final win over Wexford

Antrim coach Kevin Ryan: the Waterford man said yesterday they hadn’t banked on being in the final. Photograph: Inpho

Antrim coach Kevin Ryan: the Waterford man said yesterday they hadn’t banked on being in the final. Photograph: Inpho


History is being made tomorrow evening in Thurles when Antrim contest the county’s – and Ulster’s – first Bord Gáis Energy GAA All-Ireland Under-21 hurling final, against Clare.

Their semi-final victory surprised more than opponents, Leinster champions Wexford, as manager Kevin Ryan, the Waterford man who has been in charge of the Antrim seniors this year, said yesterday that they hadn’t banked on being in the final.

“No we would have to be honest. The most we had at training – we only took them over six weeks before the semi-final, had two games in Ulster – would have been 16 and generally it would be 12, 11, 10 – - six or seven at the start but I would say there was a core of lads that were there all the time maybe 10 lads and once we got it going another six or seven on and off depending on work and club commitments.

“We knew talent wise it was certainly there and had a nice game plan in place to suit Wexford we had seen them once or twice so it wasn’t a total surprise that we were able to beat them but it was a shock to be honest. Our whole ambition going down to Thurles would have been to be competitive and be in touch with Wexford and in the game as long as possible.

‘Mental strength’
“Obviously by half-time that ambition changes and they had the hurling to carry on they had the mental strength to carry on. It was a shock to end up winning it.”

He accepted that he had faced a long commute to find so few at training when he started with the team. From his home in Waterford to training is a round trip of more than 500 miles. “Yeah, well the first night when we had seven there – that was demoralising and it was decision time: forget this or pursue it and being honest, I spoke with the team secretary that night – he is a selector as well – and what we decided that night was we are looking at a two-year plan with the under-21s and we said we’d work through this year and get it out of the way and set up a very young squad next year and get them working early.

“Now it is still a little disheartening when you try to get a team together to perform but I’d also say having the two games in Ulster and getting through them particularly by the time we got the second game there was some team form.

“The fact you had small numbers it’s nearly easier to knit them together and when they got the chance on the day, then because they are such a close-knit group the battling qualities were there and hopefully they are there the next day.”

Having strenuously opposed his team having to travel to Thurles for the final and argued that the match should have been played in Ulster as a promotional exercise, Ryan is now happy to let the matter lie.

“We have absolutely no issue with the stadium. It’s probably the best pitch in the country and everything. For the team there is no issue and never was with the team.

“Our feelings are overall for supporters. The bottom line is people with kids won’t be able to bring them down because it will be 1am and 2am when they get back home. But as a team we have no problem with the venue.”

Despite his frustration at the poor initial turn-out at training, Ryan is sympathetic to the players and understands the context in which they weigh up whether to get involved.

“You’d have to consider what’s after happening the last 10 or 15 years. Last year they were beaten by 30 points or something like that and lads wouldn’t see they have a chance here. I’m talking when you try to get them together and it is also in the middle of senior club championship – and they all give themselves a chance of winning that.

“So it is kind of hard to convince a young lad who has been hammered basically for years at intercounty level to convince them if you do enough work you won’t be hammered and that’s the one good thing out of winning the semi-final – that a lot of them lads will get a lot of belief.

“Being honest, my whole ambition for the weekend is if they can be as competitive and stand up to it on a big day like this it would be more encouraging for the fellas for next year or two.”