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Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan Antrim stood strong against Wexford. Can they pull off an unlikely repeat against Clare?
# U21 Hurling
An underdog story: how Antrim went from 7 players at training to an All-Ireland U21 final
The Saffrons shocked Wexford in the U21 hurling semi-finals. Now they face an even tougher test against Clare.

“I AM VERY familiar with the service stations,” Kevin Ryan jokes as he tots up the 500 or so miles it takes to make the round-trip from his home in Waterford to Ballymena.

The first evening he took training with Antrim’s U21 hurlers, only six or seven players turned up. Two nights before their All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford, it was a bit better.

They had 14.

It was no surprise then that the Saffrons were rank outsiders in Semple Stadium last month. The bookmakers made Wexford 1/80 favourites, the only horse worth talking about in a two-horse race.

“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,” Ryan says as he looks back on a seismic shock and a historic two-point win.

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.”

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Antrim U21 captain Jackson McGreevy at yesterday’s Bord Gáis Energy photocall in Dublin 9 (©INPHO/James Crombie)

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Already in place as Antrim senior manager, Ryan took charge of the U21s a month before the start of the Ulster championship this summer.

He was coming into a set-up used to dominating at provincial level — they have won the last five Ulster titles — but shipping heavy defeats in the All-Ireland series.

It was 29 points against Clare last year; 26 against Dublin the year before; 28 against Tipperary in 2010.

Now tomorrow they make history as the first Ulster county ever to contest an U21 hurling final. If they were underdogs against Wexford, you can double that against a Clare side which again are red-hot favourites — 1/66 this time — and boast four of the side who started in last Sunday’s drawn senior final.

It is a bit easier to get a crowd to training now, Ryan admits, and while he tried to keep the routine as normal as possible in the run-up to the final, he hopes that this year’s success will sow the seeds of future interest.

“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. Lads wouldn’t see they have a chance here.

“When you try to get them together, 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 inter-county level that if you do enough work, you won’t be hammered.

That’s the one good thing out of winning the semi-final. A lot of those lads will get a lot of belief and 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.

“We have a lot of good young lads at 19 years of age and our plans are to get all them involved, and there are five or six lads out of minor this year, and prepare them over a two year period to be very competitive at U21 so that will help it will help get lads in for the future. That is the big thing.”

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