Saffrons happy to be out of spotlight, says McNaughton

TOMORROW, Antrim’s second season in the Leinster hurling championship will commence far away from the bright lights of the main stage with a quarter-final tie against Offaly, and that suits Shane McNaughton just fine.

Twelve months ago, it was a very different story.

The Ulster side’s historic bow in the competition — coming as it did two weeks before Galway’s — served as the curtain raiser for the heavyweight football clash of Meath and Dublin at Croke Park.

There were over 75,000 people in the stadium by the time the headline act started and, though far fewer took in the opener, the occasion simply proved too much for the Glensmen.

“Last year was a big disappointment but we kind of seen it coming,” said McNaughton. “In the first half I thought we done okay.

“I was sitting in the stand watching it but in the second half we just got blown out of the water. I don’t know what happened. In the second half other teams go up and we just stay at the same level.”

Antrim’s whole season had been mapped with their Croke Park date in mind and when they failed to live up to expectations on their big day in the big house, they simply lost their way.

Their next appointment was a winnable All-Ireland qualifier against Laois a month later but, by then, McNaughton and fellow forward Karl Stewart were sunning themselves on a Portuguese beach. Their absence was well reported at the time and the fact that McNaughton’s father, Sambo, was joint manager with Dominic McKinlay only added to the feeling everything was unravelling at a rate of knots.

“That was through my own fault. At the start of the year the chairman gave us times to book when to go on holidays. Looking back now I’m thinking, it doesn’t matter, we shouldn’t have been going on holidays.

“It was just immaturity on our part. We’ve learned from that now. It was no one else’s fault. It was ours.”

Defeat to Laois sucked Antrim into a four-way relegation play-off and Offaly walloped them by 18 points. They looked destined for defeat against Wexford and relegation to the Christy Ring Cup. As it transpired, they were saved from demotion by the administrative squabble that meandered all the way to the DRA before the resultant fudge that declared no team would be jettisoned from the top tier.

Another administrative band-aid applied at Congress last April at least means that they will not have Damocles’ sword hanging over their heads in similar fashion this year.

Through it all, they continue to flounder. They collected only four points in Division Two of the league this year and lost to both Laois and Clare by double-digit scores.

Sambo and Dominic McKinlay flooded the senior panel with youth last year and new manager Dinny Cahill has ploughed along on the same course in what is his second stint in charge.

The younger McNaughton has openly questioned his father’s wisdom in ushering so many new faces in at once but Sunday’s game in Parnell Park will be a reminder of better times for many of the younger brigade.

Only an injury-time point from Limerick deprived Antrim of an historic win in an All-Ireland minor quarter-final at the same Donnycarney venue five years ago. McNaughton scored 1-2 that day and his father and McKinlay were prowling the sidelines. It was a similar scenario a year later when only one score separated them from a treble-chasing Galway in the same competition.

There have been slim pickings since. Their last achievement of note was a four-point defeat of Wexford in Division Two 14 months ago and yet they still approach this weekend with something akin to optimism. When Antrim look at Offaly they see a team that, at best, exists at no more than a mezzanine level above them and McNaughton is bullish about their chances of taking a scalp.

“We wouldn’t really fear Offaly. They’re not really like the Kilkennys or that type just yet. On our day we could handle anyone if we play well but we’ll just have to wait and see.”

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