JOHNNY McINTOSH: The Saffrons have big shoes to fill

I’LL cut to the chase – it’s going to be a really tough year for Antrim.The main reason I say that is the boys who have stepped away from the panel. Neil McManus has retired and it goes without saying that he won’t be replaced in a hurry, and then there’s the Dunloy quartet of Ryan and Seaan Elliott, Keelan Molloy and Eoin O’Neill.

You’re talking about losing four or five recognised starters from last year and it could be a difficult Division One campaign to say the least. They start off with an away trip to Limerick, and it’s exciting in one sense but an ominous prospect in another.

It’s hard to blame the Dunloy lads for stepping away as they’re bound to be fatigued after the travails of recent years. They’ve won five of the last seven county titles, reached the All-Ireland final last year and were straight back into club action. It’s a big drain. It’s the same for the Cushendall players, I’ve seen some of them are back on the panel already, and I think the split-season is going to drive a situation where players are just going to have had enough.

I’m not saying that players need three or four months recuperation at the end of the season, but they certainly need a month or six weeks to get away from it. They might have the physical fitness to play all year round but mentally it’ll become a chore and it’s no surprise to me to see so many Dunloy players head away in one go.

So it could be a tough year for Antrim but their saving grace in the league is that there will be no relegation out of Division One as the leagues are being restructured next year.

I’m sure Darren Gleeson will blood a few players but the inter-county game is ruthless and it could be pretty chastening for young lads making their debut at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.

Without trying to be negative, it’s hard to be excited about the prospect of league hurling in general. It feels like a warm-up competition, almost like the McKenna Cup.

It’s perceived simply as a precursor to the championship and I’m not convinced that anyone’s that interested. Ask 10 people in the street who won last year’s National League and most people would simply hazard a guess. Managers are using it as an opportunity to blood new players and that’s important of course but it’s disappointing that there’s no real prestige about it.

The GAA need to do more to incentivise teams to take it seriously, and if players were aware that there was a ten-day holiday, for example, on offer for the winners, all of a sudden they’d be thinking ‘hang on boys, we want to win this.’

Meanwhile, it’s now a few weeks since Cushendall bowed out of the race for the All-Ireland with a narrow defeat to O’Loughlin Gaels. Personally I think it was a massive missed opportunity for the Ruairí Ógs and unfortunately they’ve now lost a number of All-Ireland semi-finals by a single point.

But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. At one stage in the first half they were seven or eight points ahead and they were really tearing into their opponents.

O’Loughlin Gaels have some of the best defenders in the country but for some time they’ve been labelled as having a lack of forwards and they definitely didn’t carry the same threat up front as a lot of these big teams down the country have.

There was a perception heading into the match that Ballygunner were going to win the All-Ireland no matter what happened, but of course St Thomas went and won the other semi-final completely out of the blue and I think that’s what’s going to annoy Cushendall more than anything.

They’d have seen Dunloy comprehensively beat St Thomas last year and they’ll be thinking they’ll have had a serious, serious chance of winning the All-Ireland had they got the better of O’Loughlin Gaels. Having that belief heading into an All-Ireland is half the battle so it’s a real shame Cushendall couldn’t get across the line.

But I have to give them massive credit all the same. They gave it absolutely everything and I’ve seen them in training and they certainly leave nothing to chance. They did everything to give themselves the best possible chance of winning and to be honest they were probably just unlucky on the day. A puck of the ball here and there can make the difference so they can hold their heads high after such a commendable performance.

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