In 10 seasons playing for Tipperary, Darren Gleeson only came across Antrim once. And even then, he was a tangential presence, a first-cousin-once-removed kind of thing. The occasion was a memorial match for Fr Alec Reid, the Nenagh-born priest who had played such a critical role in the back channels of the peace process. It was January 2017 and Mick Ryan brought Tipp up to Corrigan Park as All-Ireland champions, a pre-season pipe-opener in front of a bundled-up winter crowd.
Gleeson had been largely established as number one for Tipp since Brendan Cummins retired in 2011 but when it comes to January hurling, rank and station don't count for a whole pile. Ryan brought three goalkeepers on the training weekend in Antrim and two togged out for the match - Brian Hogan and Darragh Mooney. Gleeson had to content himself with an hour's sweat while the others hurled.
“I was in heavy pre-season mode and carrying a bit of condition,” he remembers now. “I was out running for the two days while the boys were playing the match. It was the only time that I was involved in any kind of match against Antrim and I didn’t get to play!
"Funny enough, the first All-Ireland final I was at was in 1989 when Tipp beat them - I was eight years old. But my main impression of Antrim hurling was basically coming from the club scene. Cushendall, Loughgiel, Dunloy. I remember watching Dunloy on St Patrick's Day so many times. And watching Loughgiel play Na Piarsigh in that brilliant semi-final in Parnell Park in 2012. So I didn't have much really that I knew about Antrim until I came up and started coaching."
That start came in 2018. Liam Sheedy was helping out in the Antrim back-room for the year and he took a notion of bringing his Portroe clubmate Gleeson with him one Saturday morning to give a few pointers to the goalkeepers. They had to be in Belfast for 10 o'clock that morning so they were in the car in Tipp before sunrise - Gleeson half-reckons he was brought along to keep Sheedy awake on the drive north.
A few sessions became a few more and when Sheedy went back for his second stint in Tipp in 2019, Gleeson stayed on as team coach under manager Neal Penden. When Penden moved on to become Antrim's director of hurling, Gleeson was the unanimous choice as manager. All because he got out of bed on a Saturday morning.
And look what happened. Just over a year and a half in the gig and Antrim have yet to lose a match under Gleeson. They won Division Two last year as well as the Joe McDonagh Cup. Now they've started life in Division One with a victory over Clare, the first win by an Antrim team over one of the big five from Munster in any competition since 1994.
He wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t brush it off, clearly. Last Sunday in Corrigan Park was a great result, obviously enough. But that’s all it was. Just as whatever happens against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park ton Sunday will be just a result. If you let the highs get too high, you’ll fairly feel the brunt of the lows. And there will be lows.
“The players were grand after it,” he shrugs. “You just get on with it. You play a match, you finish the match, you fist bump the opposition and your own teammates and then you get on with the job. You warm down, take in the result and get ready for next week. That’s the great thing about playing week to week - you just keep moving on. It’s a game of hurling, it’s over, get ready for the next one.
“The beauty of the league is that you get judged at the end of it. If we get another win minimum or get a few results in the other games, we’re going to be able to stay in it. If we don’t, we’ll be bottom of the table. That’s the reality of it. Judge us at the end of the league, not on one result.”
And yet, it’s entirely possible to allow for the fact that one win doesn’t have to mean much beyond the day itself and still be impressed with Antrim’s progress. It’s only two seasons, after all, since they went into the last round of matches in Division 2A needing to beat London to be sure of avoiding a relegation play-off.
Having already lost to Kerry and Westmeath, they were three points down at half-time that day in Corrigan Park. The next stop after 2A is a league played against Donegal and Warwickshire and Kildare - they never fell far enough to be burned by the flame but they could feel the heat from it nonetheless. Nowlan Park might as well have been Pluto at that stage.
Gleeson can’t (and wouldn’t) claim credit for the turnaround. He stresses that has hit upon Antrim at a good point in their evolution. The work done by Sambo McNaughton - not least strong-arming Sheedy into giving them the dig-out that indirectly got Gleeson involved in the first place - and Penden has developed the right sort of culture around the place. Gleeson talked to everybody to find out what they thought had held them back and took that information to build forward.
“They were bogged down in club rivalries a bit over the years,” he says. “And the thing that we wanted from them was to understand really that you need to bring that club feel to the Antrim set-up. You can be passionate about your club but you can put that aside when you’re in with the county and still be fully loaded to go back into your club championship and give it everything, even when you’re coming up against your county teammates. That’s the way it has to be. You have to be able to hop off each other in a club match and come together for the county.
“That needed to be addressed. That didn’t just start with me coming in as manager, it was built up over the past few years with the previous two managements. They were trying to get that across before I got there and I’m lucky to have been able to build on those foundations.
“What we tried to do was to try and put in the most professional environment in place as possible. So automatically then you are attracting players who want to improve, who want to play against the best. They will come to an environment like that. If they are interested in finding out what level they can get to, if there’s an environment where they feel they can progress, then they will come in and they will make that the focus. If the structure is right, if the environment is right, then you’d hope all the other stuff becomes irrelevant.”
Last year was just about the sternest stress test of that environment imaginable. He had been Antrim manager for just five months when Covid made everyone cease and desist. In a strange kind of way, he was able to find a positive in the fact that the shutdown was an equal-opportunities pain in the ass.
“It didn’t matter whether you were 250 miles from your players or 250 yards - you couldn’t be in their presence either way. It’s surreal when you’re sitting in front of a computer screen and you’re trying to do a ball-wall session with lads who are pucking around and trying to listen to you. You just find yourself going, ‘What am I doing here?’
“We didn’t use Zoom after the first few weeks. We checked in to say hello every now and then but it’s very difficult. And eventually, you have to trust them to do their own work. If they’re not motivated to do it, you don’t have the right players.”
As the year progressed, he found out that he did have the right ones. Their first game back when intercounty resumed was the league final against Kerry. It would have been Offaly except that they had scored two goals in injury-time back in March in the last bit of hurling before the world stopped turning. It forced a draw that left Offaly stranded. Now they had Kerry - one of four meetings across the year, none of which they lost.
“That league final, it probably fell right for us. It was a tight game, there was so much at stake for everyone. Getting out of Division Two was our primary goal last year, it was the thing that mattered most, definitely. That was the main aim, to get out of there. The players needed that, we all did.
“We can all find excuses not to do things. I think if the environment is right, that’s the easiest way to get everyone to buy in. We’re getting there. We’ve only started really. Obviously, the result at the weekend was great but it’s early stages. But there’ll be bumps in the road, we all know that. It’s how we recover from them that’s going to matter.”
No bigger bump than Kilkenny away.