Antrim hurling will die unless something is done - 'Sambo'
Published 25/08/2016 | 02:30
Antrim hurling is in a perilous position and requires urgent attention to avoid becoming an irrelevancy on the national scene, according to one of its greatest ever warriors.
Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton is once again putting his powerful shoulder to the wheel as he joins up with his long-time ally Dominic 'Woody' McKinley, Gary O'Kane and Neal Peden to take charge of the senior team.
They stepped in when PJ O'Mullan resigned after a few months in the job last April and while they originally saw their role as temporary to take Antrim through the Christy Ring Cup and Ulster Championship, they have now agreed to stay on.
Antrim hurling may have undergone extensive change - most of it for the worse - since McNaughton was last involved in senior team management (2007-'09) but his willingness to call things as he sees them remains as pronounced as ever.
But then he is in no mood for sugar-coating at the end of a season where Antrim seniors finished in the bottom half of Division 2A (16th in overall rankings) and were later beaten by Meath in a re-fixed Christy Ring Cup final.
Antrim minors lost to Galway by 20 points while Waterford beat the U-21s by 20 points last Saturday.
"It's embarrassing. But then what can you expect? The U-21s trained once. There's no point having the U-21s and minors going straight into the All-Ireland semi-finals or quarter-finals because they're not ready for it. There was a time when we had minors who were ready for it but not now," said McNaughton.
He has a grim sense of foreboding about the future of Antrim hurling at all levels unless dramatic corrective action is taken, a process with which he is determined to be involved.
"Antrim hurling will die unless something is done. There's a real apathy around and that's dangerous. I wish I didn't give a damn and just sit in a bar and talk rubbish about it as some do.
"I'm not like that. And neither is 'Woody' or the other lads. It means an awful lot to us, which is why we're going in to try and do something. Antrim could go down south again and bring up another manager but I think it's time for local people to take charge.
"We're not going in for money or glamour - that's for sure. We're doing it because we love hurling. We don't need anyone from Kilkenny, Tipperary or anywhere else coming up here and teaching us how to love hurling," he said.
The first target is to put new foundations in place and begin the tough grind of re-establishing Antrim at a level where they are challenging in the top tier, rather than falling way behind the elite.
"We have good people on the board now. We all know where we stand. The reality is that we're trying to close the gap on Carlow, Westmeath and Laois, not the teams higher up.
"We'll bring back old-fashioned values of commitment and effort, pride in the Antrim jersey, the things that we used to stand for. The county panel won't be a drop-in centre, that's for sure. You're either giving full commitment or you're out. There are enough lads there to commit to the cause - I have no doubt about that," said McNaughton.
Support from the Ulster Council and Croke Park is important for Antrim's long-term future but it has to be properly focused.
"You'll hear some people in Ulster saying that it's great to see the likes of Armagh and Tyrone improving, coming close to Antrim. The reality is that we've gone back to their level and that's no good to us or to hurling. But does anyone outside Antrim care?
"Do they care if we fall away altogether? You'd wonder sometimes. We're not looking for hand-outs, just genuine support to help the game in a county where there's real passion for it. Hurling will be the loser if Antrim doesn't come back," he said.
McNaughton, McKinley and O'Kane were all aboard the Antrim team that reached the 1989 All-Ireland final where they lost to Tipperary. McNaughton won an All-Star award at midfield in 1991.