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Long road from Tipperary: the Premier influences helping to re-shape Antrim hurling

Led by former Tipp keeper Darren Gleeson, Antrim are knocking on the door of the Division 2A final.

Antrim: hoping for brighter future under Gleeson (file photo).
Antrim: hoping for brighter future under Gleeson (file photo).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

ON 11 JANUARY, when daylight was but a flicker, the Antrim hurlers held a training session at the Queen’s University facilities, The Dub.

The following day they were heading for Navan for a Kehoe Cup final against Offaly, so things were pretty relaxed. Manager Darren Gleeson moved among them, observing for the most part, rather than instructing.

When the session was complete, Neil McManus and Niall McKenna stayed on to practise their free-taking. Their efforts were comfortably clearing the catchnets but they were unaware that they were landing on a pitch the far side with a soccer match in full flow.

The referee stopped the game and made his way to the Antrim players stretching. Gleeson asked what the problem was and while the referee was explaining, a wise-ass quip came from one of the players, ‘You don’t have this problem down in Tipp!’

After all that commotion, Antrim’s man-mountain forward Domhnall Nugent stood talking for a prolonged period to Gleeson and the team nutritionist, Julia Bone.

The improvements in Nugent’s game and physique were showcased last weekend when he racked up 1-2 in a must-win game over Kerry. It has left the Saffrons now with a trip to Offaly for a refixed game in Tullamore. If they avoid a 37-point defeat, they are in the Division 2A final against the same team.

Progress, for sure.

It’s going back a few seasons now, but the road they are on began in April 2016 when former managers Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton and Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley were persuaded to take the senior management on again after the sudden departure of PJ O’Mullan Jnr. They were assisted by Gary O’Kane and Neal Pedan in what became a four-headed management beast.  

O’Mullan’s problems were eerily familiar to the previous incumbent, Kevin Ryan of Mount Sion, Waterford.

Back in 2013 he said, “I would be very disappointed in the overall commitment in Antrim hurling.”

Reflecting on that a year later he drilled down into the numbers.

“Last year, we asked in 52 lads and got 17 of them. I ended up with just 10 or 12 of that 17.”

Midway through their first full season, the duo recognised that they needed to sprinkle some stardust about, to act as a lure for some stay-away players. And so they brought in no other than Tipperary’s 2010 All-Ireland winning manager Liam Sheedy for 2018.

“We had problems getting people to commit and wanting to be part of the set-up. We have had to change the set-up in the camp and Liam came in and gave us that whole professional approach and we have been trying to follow things he had said we could do for the team,” states Pedan now.

And once they had Sheedy, his Portroe clubmate Darren Gleeson followed in time. First, as a selector and coach, now graduating to front of house.

Sambo and Woody stepped aside at the end of 2018. Pedan and O’Kane kept it going for continuity’s sake and at the end of last season, Pedan was appointed Antrim’s first-ever ‘Director of Hurling.’ He was delighted to have Gleeson succeeding him in the role.

“Liam had spoken very highly of Darren’s coaching ability and the type of guy he was as a hurler,” he said.

“When I had Darren there last year we could see that Darren had all you need to be a good county manager. That’s why we wanted to get him this year.

“It kept the boys really interested in coming back and that’s why we have such a strong panel at the moment. We have the panel now we wanted and that has been key.”

Not everything is planned of course, but as the management situation evolved, Pedan could see the players pin back their ears and drink in everything Gleeson was saying.

“I had a real insight, being involved in the last three or four years, what was missing in Antrim, what we needed to do. That’s why we were so keen to keep Darren in this year and that level of professionalism in the role,” Pedan continues.

“My role is to watch what is happening and keep this going, that it is not just a one-year venture for Darren. We don’t know how long he will stay but we have to look at those positives and keep those positives going, from the senior camp, bring it into the under-20 camp, down to your 17s and then try to guard that age gap from 17 to 20.”

Few outside of Sheedy understand Gleeson quite as intimately as Michael Ryan, who joined the Tipp management under Sheedy in 2008, was assistant manager under Eamon O’Shea and won an All-Ireland in 2016 with Gleeson between the sticks, conceding just five goals in five games while facing the best attacks in the game.   

“Darren came into the set-up as a relatively unknown goalkeeper at the end of the 2007 campaign. And he didn’t come out of it until 2017,” says Ryan.

“Number one, he wasn’t an 18- or 19-year-old coming in, he was well seasoned by then. That gives you the context that Liam saw something in this chap to bring him in. And then he was understudy to Brendan Cummins for a number of years and then held that position for years.”

Ryan was excited upon hearing Gleeson taking up the challenge of managing Antrim, with all the obvious problems that entails.

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“What Darren does bring, and when I heard he was up there last year in Antrim helping them out and going back up this year to be the manager, he would bring an awful lot of personality. He is a really, really strong personality,” he says.

“That’s a positively strong personality. A big character. Loves the game and he is very good with his interpersonal skills. He’s intense. Quite like Liam in that he has a burning intensity when he is talking to you; he’s nailing you. He is absolutely sticking you to the wall.

“That’s the kind of conviction and passion he is speaking with. That’s a massive attribute to have in your locker.”

He continues, “All the goalies in the world will hate me for saying it, but you do need to be a really strong character to start with and Darren had that. His personality was exceptionally well-suited to the job of goalie. There are fellas with loads of skill and they can tick every box for a goalie, but they may not tick that personality box. It’s not the only box, but it probably is the greatest one.

“So hearing that he is having a big influence on Antrim hurling right now is of literally no surprise to me. He is a phenomenally strong character.”

Already this campaign, the progress is there for all to see. Antrim spent a year in Division 1B in 2018. They ran Galway to three points in their first league game, Dublin to a point the next day in Corrigan Park and beat Offaly on the last day out.

If they get up again, there is a feeling they would arrive there with more solid foundations.

Ryan feels that the current arrangement, even with the 208-or-so miles that separates Portroe from Belfast, would benefit from being a long-term arrangement.

“I would say from both perspectives – from Antrim and Darren’s perspectives, they will do this thing, to not be the visiting ‘Celebrity Bainisteoir.’ They need a three or four-year arrangement with this.

“And that’s a healthy shelf life for any manager to come in.”

All in Antrim will hope the same.

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About the author:

Declan Bogue

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