'Antrim need to bang on doors to get team we deserve'
Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30
The contrast could scarcely be greater in Antrim hurling right now as Cushendall prepare for the glamour of an All-Ireland club final in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day while the county team finds itself trapped in Division 2.
Cushendall's fine achievement, which comes only four years after Loughgiel won the All-Ireland title, raises the baffling question of why Antrim have dropped so far down the inter-county rankings at a time when the club scene is clearly very strong.
"We're there (in Division 2) because that's what our results last year deserved," said new manager PJ O'Mullan.
It's an accurate assessment, since Antrim lost nine of 10 games in the League and Leinster championship last year. O'Mullan, who steered Loughgiel to the All-Ireland title in 2012, replaced Kevin Ryan as county manager at the end of the season.
Antrim made a successful start to their bid to escape from 2A when beating Derry last Sunday but there's still a very long road to be negotiated if they are to go up.
Cushendall's success weakens Antrim's promotion chances as they will be without the county champions' contingent for all five group games.
"Counties with a lot more players than we have wouldn't fancy being without six or seven top men. It's great to see Cushendall in the final as it shows how good club hurling is in Antrim but it doesn't help our cause in the League," said O'Mullan.
Even if Antrim win the 2A title, they will still have to beat the bottom team in 1B to win promotion.
"We're a long way from that - there are some very good teams in 2A. But whoever wins the title should go up automatically," said O'Mullan. "I don't know why the bottom team in 1B gets another chance to stay up. If you win a division you should be promoted."
While Antrim's ranking is lower than for a long time, O'Mullan insists that the overall standard in the county is good.
"Our clubs prove that year after year. Even when they don't win All-Ireland semi-finals, they're always competitive," he said.
However, if Antrim are to make real progress at inter-county level, he believes they need to be more assertive in their dealings with the Ulster Council and Croke Park.
"We need to bang on doors, tell them what we need and make sure we get it," said O'Mullan.
"We're a long way from the big hurling counties but we have to be able to mix with them. We need to be able to bring squads down to the likes of Kilkenny as often as possible. That costs money and that's where the Ulster Council and Croke Park come in. They need to back us all the way.
"We have the clubs and we have the players and we can have the county team Antrim deserves if we get the right support."
Kildare are next on Antrim's agenda in Ballycastle on Sunday, followed by Westmeath, Carlow and London,with the Leinster pair their main rivals for the title.