How Darren Gleeson Has Changed Attitudes In Antrim Hurling

By PJ Browne

There was a time, not that long ago, when the Antrim hurlers would take a beating in the National League, and it wouldn't even be discussed on the bus home.

It was discarded like a bad memory from a drunken night out. They wouldn't try to pick apart what went wrong and what could be done better to ensure it didn't happen again. That has changed since Tipperary man Darren Gleeson was appointed manager in the autumn of 2019.

"Now we're going, 'Why? What happened there? We've been playing well, why did this happen?'" says Eoghan Campbell.

"I think we played Limerick in Cushendall, the first year they won the All-Ireland, in a league game. Cian Lynch was playing. I'd never seen a team move the ball about the pitch like it. We were running in circles all day.

"It just showed you where we needed to get to. Over the years since I've been here, playing league last year, even some of the Championship games, we are coming up (standard wise), we're playing those games regularly and it will take us up to that level.

"I think it's vital to be playing those games and taking the beatings some days that they come. It's learning from it and I think the main thing is that we are learning from it now."

On Saturday at Croke Park, Antrim play what Campbell says is probably their biggest game of his decade with the senior team. It's their second Joe McDonagh Cup final, and their second against Kerry, the side they beat in 2020 to win promotion to hurling's top tier.

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Victory on Saturday would see Antrim replace Laois in the Leinster championship with the prize this time being a chance to play in the 2023 round robin competition. The 2021 Leinster championship being straight knockout denied them those big games against Galway, Kilkenny and Wexford.

1 June 2022; Eoghan Campbell of Antrim during the Joe McDonagh Cup Final media event at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"Since Darren’s come in the last two or three years there has been a level of professionalism brought to Antrim hurling," says Campbell.

"The strength and conditioning, we have Brendan Murphy in with us. It was there before, but you could nearly pick and choose when you went. Now there’s individualised sessions, rehab sessions, recovery sessions, all tailored. Supplements, it’s all there for us. Boys are working long days, it’s all laid out now.

"There were times going to train in Jordanstown for the winter and the pitch might not have been [available]. The release going to training [and] you don’t have to worry about anything is a lot better for players. Even getting sticks sorted, or not waiting on gear. Expenses all being paid now. There’s an accountability on both sides which has drove it on.

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"We’ve had buy-in from the best players in the county. There were times when you were waiting in the car park to see who shows up. Darren came in and demanded it.

"Being an All-Ireland winner with Tipperary and seeing what it takes to drive it on. Having a vision of where he wanted Antrim to be, and all of us to be. We were probably a bit rudderless. We had no stepping stones, no vision, no plan. The players have seen that Darren had this. If you wanted to step away, no one would hold any grudges.

"It’s shown in our progress, our consistency. Especially our league campaigns the last two years. We had a dip in the championship last year but the Joe McDonagh has given us a base to build back up.

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"It's a lot more enjoyable when you’re winning, when you’re playing well. Since Darren’s come in, we’ve only had one or two changes in the squad. We’re tight-knit. Everyone knows their role. We have a structure that we play to. That’s evident when our subs come on and make an impact.

"We’ve some of the best hurlers in Ireland, some of the best young stars. We’ve Sean Elliot, Keelan Molloy, James McNaughton and we’ve also Neil McManus who has been there a while. All exceptional talents who are allowed express their talent."

Campbell says the next scene of Gleeson's script is to have Antrim regularly competing with, and beating, hurling's elite.

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"I think the vision is to be consistent at the top flight," says Campbell.

"The last two years of the league we’ve been starting to do that – the next step is to win those games. We beat Clare in the league last year, drew with Wexford. Realistically, the vision is to do that consistently, make a dint in the championship.

"If we win or lose Saturday, we get a crack at either Wexford or Cork. I’d say us or Kerry have no problem playing either in a qualifier. Both teams will be looking forward to making a dint in the Liam MacCarthy. That’s the vision."

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See Also: Antrim Sympathy For 'Joke' Kerry Munster Hurling Championship Situation

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