People say teaching is the ideal job for inter-county hurlers, but being a Hurling Development Officer must be right up there?
It’s good alright to be playing and coaching hurling. It’s particularly rewarding working with the young ones, and especially in a place like Belfast. Hurling isn’t that strong in parts of the city so you’re bringing it into the schools and seeing the kids getting the enjoyment I get out of it. Even where I’m from in West Belfast, which isn’t a hurling stronghold by any means, you’re starting to see kids out in the streets with Antrim gear on and a hurl in their hands. It’s growing baby steps but we are definitely getting there. There’s a lot of different things going on between clubs, schools and development squads, so there’s plenty of plates to be spinning at the one time. It keeps you on your toes but I can’t complain. It’s a really, really enjoyable job.
You’re going for a 16-in-a-row, but where does the Ulster final rank as a priority among the Christy Ring Cup, League and Walsh Cup?
It has its own importance. We’re going for 16-in-a-row and people might question our motivation, but we’ll try to keep the record going and the motivation is for the players to keep their place for the really big one the following week against Carlow (in the Christy Ring Cup first round). It ranks highly among the players solely because they want to keep their jersey.
Armagh have asked to get the game postponed and this will be your fourth of six games between March 26th and April 29th. Is the scheduling an issue in how the final is treated?
The Ulster Council are trying their best to keep this championship alive. Last year, we’d finished our Christy Ring and Armagh had finished their Nicky Rackard. Players had lost the appetite for it and just wanted to get back to their clubs. I can understand what they’re trying to do but it isn’t ideal having a big championship game coming up in the Christy Ring after a six-day turnaround. It’s a lot to ask, especially when the games have been coming thick and fast. But to be fair, if we hadn’t been playing a game on Sunday, I’m sure both teams would’ve been training anyway. It’s there to be played, both teams are going to be going hell-for-leather for it and we certainly want to win it.
I was going to ask what are your best and worst memories of the Ulster championship, but I’m guessing they’re all good memories?
I’ve been lucky enough that anytime I’ve been involved at senior level, we’ve won it. The best memory was my first final in 2007, when I got my first start at inter-county level against Down. We had a really comprehensive victory (2-24 to 0-4). It was really sweet because it was at a time when there still were decent crowds coming to watch the Ulster finals, and it was in Casement Park. The worst would be going back to U21 level when we lost a couple of finals. We lost to Derry and there’s still a bit of pain there from that.
Casement Park (lying idle since June 2013 and still awaiting panning permission) must be a huge loss?
Absolutely. As a child, it was my favourite place to go to watch a match and your dream was always to play there. It’s just sad to see it the way it is now and as a county we’ve lost out on a ground and a home. There’s a lot of kids in the city that have lost out on going to watch their county and club teams play there. I really hope it gets sorted out as soon as possible so Belfast can get a county ground and we can get our home back. Fingers crossed we hear something really positive soon and the stadium project starts to go in the right direction.
Is there one thing people outside of the province don’t understand about Ulster hurling?
All around Ulster there’s little pockets of hurling, whether it be in Monaghan, Fermanagh, Donegal or Down. They’re just completely mad about the game. Maybe people forget that and just think of Antrim when they look at Ulster, but around Ulster there’s seriously passionate hurling people. I don’t know what you would do to get Ulster hurling up to the level of Munster, Leinster or Galway – it’s maybe never going to get there – but people just need to keep supporting and encouraging the game to stay alive up here. There’s so many passionate people and they love it just as much as anybody in Cork, Kilkenny or Tipperary.
Speaking of Kilkenny and Tipperary, who were you more impressed by after playing them this spring?
Phew, it’s a tough one. I was impressed by both teams in different ways. The day we played Kilkenny in Abbotstown, they were just awesome. The respect they showed for us was pretty humbling because we’re a Christy Ring team and they were just off the back of losing an All-Ireland final. Right to the final whistle, the boys were driving on and driving on (it ended 6-27 to 0-19). That’s a testament to the respect they have for teams. The way the Tipperary players engaged with the people of Belfast when they came up for the Festival of Hurling was incredible. It just shows what a special squad they are. Who impressed me more? I’d go with Kilkenny, probably a bit controversially. They have plenty of motivation this year. They’d be the team for me.
You’d a tough year in 2016 between management changes and the Christy Ring Cup saga. Can it be hard to get players to commit?
When ‘Sambo’ (McNaughton), ‘Woody’ (McKinley), Neal (Pedan) and Gary (O’Kane) agreed to take the management again, they opened up the invitation to a lot of players, and a lot of players said no for various reasons. I would never criticise anybody for that but it was tough. We’ve had a really tough pre-season that basically asked the question of who wanted to be there and who didn’t. At the moment, we have a panel and every single player wants to be there for the right reasons – to see Antrim progress. We’re hoping this year that we can really push on, like we have in the league, and have a positive year. Then more players will want to come back, do the hard work and put in their time to it. It’s a worthwhile cause and sometimes players in Antrim don’t see that.