Antrim lynchpin McManus bullish as 'two biggest cities in the country go head to head'
BIG-GAME atmosphere in Casement Park. Scent of frying burgers and onions wafting as the night sky reveals an aurora borealis.
Floodlights on for the first time in Casement. A real novelty. The Dubs were in town for a hurling league game after bad weather wiped out the original fixture.
There was a fission in that quarter of west Belfast.
On the sideline was 'Sambo' McNaughton and 'Woody' McKinley. After supervising the development of a promising crop through the underage ranks, they brought them through en bloc.
Most were confined to the bench, but Neil McManus was a special case. Early on, he broke a high ball against Ronan Fallon, latched onto it and speared it over from 40 yards. Nerves settled.
Just before the half-time whistle, with the teams level, McManus rifled a shot goalwards. Dublin goalkeeper Gary Maguire got his stick to it, but the youngster was following in and drove to the net.
He would go on to top-score with 1-3 from play. Antrim had a new starlet and hope for the future.
Now he is captain, in his seventh year of inter-county hurling with a well of hard-luck stories that he won't be drawing from. He prefers to recall the good times.
"It went by in a flash," he recalls of that 2007 league match.
"It was one of those nights where everything just came together. Karl McKeegan and Ciaran Herron that night were just unbelievable. It was our first night tasting a real victory with the Antrim senior team and it felt great."
As he acknowledges himself, their Dublin opponents are probably a step ahead, but this is a tough division with Limerick, Wexford and Offaly all uncomfortable with the 'B' appendage that comes after NHL Division 1.
In their development, Dublin have handed a few lessons out to Antrim. They reversed that 2007 league loss a year later with a seven-point win, and trounced the Saffrons in the 2009 Leinster Championship 2-16 to 0-12.
But when it comes to Dublin, Antrim have none of the traditional hang-ups that characterise some recent collapses against other top opposition.
"They are a brilliant side with brilliant players like Conal Keaney and Liam Rushe," begins McManus.
"They have a wealth of talent there but at the same time, we seem to deal well with Dublin. There's a thing about the two biggest cities in the country going head to head, there's a good build-up to that. We certainly don't like to let ourselves down on the big occasion."
Now, the minors of Sambo and Woody vintage are the mainstays of the Antrim team. McManus, Shane McNaughton, Eddie McCloskey, Aaron Graffin and Neal McAuley are all named to start tomorrow.
A veteran now, their leader never forgets the contribution that more experienced heads made when he was cutting his teeth at this level, citing Johnny McIntosh, McKeegan, Herron, Kieran 'Pinky' Kelly and Malachy Molloy.
"Antrim owe them a whole lot because they kept Antrim in the position that things were expected of you. That was the frame of mind when I first started, the respect they had for their county and what it meant to them shone through.
"It was their tutelage and they set up the basis for what it meant to be an Antrim hurler," says McManus.
The roles have been reversed and now this panel are trying to take in the lessons imparted by coach Kevin Ryan on the training pitch at Jordanstown as they hunker down for the long haul.
"Antrim fans are going to have to be patient and stick with the programme. There is no such thing as a drastic improvement overnight. Improvement comes about with hard work over a long period of time and that's what we are ready to do," adds McManus.
The future of Antrim now depends on that host of players in their mid-20s. It's been almost a decade now since they were first brought together in development squads. Doesn't feel like it.
"It's gone by in the blink of an eye, but I suppose it shows how together we are, how united and committed the whole panel are," says McManus.
That commitment was evident against Limerick first up. A win here? It's never beyond Antrim.