ANTRIM drew against Dublin last weekend in their first ever home outing in the Leinster Hurling Championship.
It would’ve been an unbelievable start to the campaign if they’d won, but a draw is a really good yardstick of how far the Saffrons have come in the last number of years.
A few years back, Dublin beat us by 17 or 18 points down in Navan, and while home advantage at Corrigan may have been worth a few points to us, it certainly would not have narrowed the gap by itself.
Next up, we’re away to Wexford this weekend and it’ll be a big challenge to back up our positive performance against Dublin.
Most people would not have expected us to beat Dublin and now there’s almost a bit of pressure on as a result of that performance.
It’s probably a measure of how far we’ve come that some supporters will almost be expecting us to pick up a win against Wexford.
It’ll also be an acid test for us in the sense we’re playing away from Corrigan so it’ll be interesting to see how we get on.
We’ve made Corrigan a bit of a fortress at this stage. It’s small and difficult to play in.
But I’m still fairly confident given how well we’re playing on the whole. Probably our player of the season has been one of our defenders, Paddy Burke at corner-back.
He’s been outstanding all year, not only is he stopping corner-forwards from scoring but he’s getting up the field and during the league was consistently scoring two or three points a game.
I also think it’s positive that young Niall O’Connor and Conall Bohill have come into the fold and are doing well. They were on the u-20 squad a few years back and have definitely boosted the senior panel.
We’re probably still not firing up front as we should be. Seaan Elliot would be the first to tell you he’s been poor for Antrim in the last couple of years but he looked back to his best against Dublin.
He’s got lightning pace and was given something of a free role against Dublin and seemed to enjoy it.
Then there’s Neil McManus. We’ve always had this conundrum about what we’d do to replace Neil down the road and we’re gradually finding the answers with boys like Conal ‘Coby Cunning’ taking the pressure off Neil to a certain extent.
In a strange way, it was also a positive that Neil didn’t score on Sunday. Five years ago, if Neil didn’t score in an Antrim game, it was safe to say that we would’ve been well beaten.
He was generally the one holding the whole thing together. He did a massive pile of work against Dublin, it’s not as if he played badly, he just didn’t score. I think it’s definitely a good sign for Antrim that other boys were able to take up the scoring mantle for us.
Darren Gleeson, who I credit a lot for Antrim’s improvement in recent years, spoke before the Dublin game about how it was the first time in his tenure that they’d enough time to properly prepare for the championship and that puts pressure on the team to go out and perform.
To be fair they definitely did that. They were six points up at one stage and Dublin seemed to be on the ropes. Antrim missed a few long-range frees, which wasn’t the case during the league, and I definitely think they’ll consider it as a missed opportunity.
While I’m feeling optimistic about putting in a good performance against Wexford, I still think we’re short possibly two forwards from really pushing on, even though structurally we’ve improved a lot.
You have to give Gleeson a lot of respect and the danger is that things could falter when he steps away. Perhaps his crowning achievement so far is that he’s been able to get all the best players in the county lining out for Antrim.
He’s created a competitive environment where lads all want to play because he’s instilled a belief that they can win trophies.
There was talk a couple of years ago that he was set to step aside but Darren’s stayed on and I think it’s extremely important that he stays in position because it’s been extremely positive for the team.
He’s also an outside manager and that can have its benefits as it takes the whole club rivalries out of the equation – nobody can accuse him of picking somebody or not picking somebody because they’re from a certain club.
There’s a real freshness to things at the moment and long may it continue.