James Crombie/INPHO Antrim's Ciarán Clarke.
# closing the gap
'We think it’s different this year, we believe we can compete with these teams'
Antrim’s Ciarán Clarke hopes the county can kick on following a positive start to the 2021 season.

IT’S A SIGN of Antrim’s positive start to the 2021 season that one of the stand-out Saffron stars, Ciarán Clarke, finds himself sitting down for an interview after being named PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month for May.

The Ballycastle McQuillan’s man was at the forefront of Antrim’s superb win over Clare in the opening round of the league, scoring 1-11 in that 1-21 to 0-22 victory at Corrigan Park.

Since that blistering start to the league, Antrim have fallen to a seven point defeat in Kilkenny and lost by eight points away to Dublin, before a hard-fought draw with Wexford back in Corrigan Park

And with championship hurling on the horizon – Antrim play Dublin in the Leinster quarter-finals on 26 June – Clarke feels Antrim have the capacity to kick on again and build on their early-season promise.

“We think it’s different this year. We believe we can compete with these teams and we believe we can go far, but it’s about building on our last game and the game before that,” Clarke says.

“You’re always aiming to be the best you can be and compete against the so-called bigger teams.”

pwc-gaa-gpa-player-of-the-month-in-hurling-for-may-2021 Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month for May, Ciarán Clarke (Antrim) with his award today at his home club Ballycastle GAA. Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

When asked to explain the team’s steady improvement, Clarke lays the credit firmly at the feet of manager Darren Gleeson, who joined the county in September 2019. 

“Since Darren’s come in in the last couple of years it’s a very professional set up,” Clarke explains.

There’s nothing you want for. If you ever need something, it’s there for you. You don’t have to ask. It’s probably the first year that we had all the best players in the county playing for us. They want to commit and, as you can see with the size of our panel, I think we have 36 in the panel, which is the first time we’ve ever had a panel that size and people wanting to go into it.

“I think the main thing (Gleeson has brought) is probably the belief. We are just the same as the so-called big teams, we just need to believe it. I think you have seen the belief there in our league campaign.

“Maybe we did start slow (in some games) and maybe we were waiting to see what these other teams could do. But then when we realised that we can compete and we can challenge, that’s maybe when we started clawing back the leads.”

There are of course plenty of challenges facing hurling in Antrim, including the lack of a recognised home ground as the long-delayed redevelopment of Casement Park continues to come into difficulty.

Clarke outlines why finally getting the project over the line would represent a huge boost for the future of hurling in Antrim.

“You need somewhere (to be your home stadium). Whenever I was growing up you were going to your big Antrim games there and having the big crowds there.

“For the younger generation, it plays a big part that they can see their county team, and the other county teams, coming there. It gives them inspiration of where they want to be, progress from underage up to senior, it gives you a pathway.

“You need somewhere you can permanently call home and somewhere you can try to make it tough for teams coming up, make teams not want to come to Casement Park. Because at the minute, we’re playing at Corrigan this year, a few years ago we played at Ballycastle, Cushendall too, so we didn’t or don’t really have a home venue or a place we call home, so it’s vitally important for that as well.

“I’m not really following it that closely because there seems to be that many twists and turns, we’re getting it then we’re not getting it. It’s hard to keep on track with it, but you’d like to be back playing there.” 

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