‘We’re just giving away our jewel in the crown,’ says Antrim boss Darren Gleeson ahead of weekend of double-jeopardy
Darren Gleeson is accustomed now to the rhythm of these weeks in Antrim. The weighty, season-defining games. The tense lead-in. The deathly jeopardy of it all.
In his first year, 2020, Antrim beat Kerry in a Division 2A promotion decider. Later that year, they won the Joe McDonagh Cup.
These are non-negotiable steps for a hurling county of Antrim’s profile, one that occupies that twilight zone between the elite and the not-quite-elite.
Too big for Division 2 and the Joe McDonagh Cup. Not quite big enough for Division 1 and Leinster.
So year one was an unqualified success, but they’ve endured the other side of those days too and in Antrim, like Laois or Westmeath, progress tends to follow a prescribed pattern: first vertical, then stagnant and eventually backwards.
In ’21, Antrim lost to Laois in a de facto Leinster championship relegation play-off and made the immediate plunge back to tier 2. They sauntered all the way to hurling’s VIP room only to be told ‘sorry lads, not tonight.’
Last year, they beat Offaly to enshrine their status as a Division 1 hurling county for another year.
At that altitude, further progress is almost impossible, but preservation is essential. Then came another Joe McDonagh win and the chance to play in the Leinster SHC round robin for the first time. Five top-class championship games. The sort of environment Antrim need plenty of exposure to in order to properly acclimatise.
Yet here they are. Another final in all but name.
All the chips stacked on the table for one last hand in Mullingar on Sunday.
“There’s big ramifications for us,” admitted Gleeson. “For us all as a whole, to go back and have a third cut at winning the Joe McDonagh, it would be very hard to motivate everyone for that. So next weekend is imperative.”
Under Gleeson, they have won more of these double-jeopardy matches than they have lost. But clearly, this annual game of snake-and-ladders has the potential to grow tiresome eventually.
The fact that nobody has an easy solution probably means that there isn’t one.
Clearly, Antrim could do with another season in Leinster, but so too could Westmeath. Whatever Wexford are missing just now, they’re unlikely to find it in the Joe McDonagh Cup either. And yet, there are seasons when the bottom team in the Leinster Championship isn’t quite good enough to cut it and therefore, relegation is an appropriate – and some would argue, sympathetic – consequence.
Antrim have already drawn with Dublin this year. They battled to within four points (1-30 to 1-26) of getting a draw in Wexford also. They aren’t a million miles off cutting it at this pace but they’ll feel at least that far away should they go down.
For the record, Gleeson isn’t looking for any preservation order to be placed on Antrim in the Leinster Championship. They knew the terms and conditions before they signed up.
As he says himself, “we should have had our business done earlier in the round-robin instead of coming to here (needing something). You earn your right for that (to stay up).”
Which isn’t to say they haven’t had bad luck also.
Two home games and three away is a rough programme. Equally challenging is the spate of injuries they endured – 10 at the last count – partly due to the tight scheduling and having to play three intense championship matches in 13 days.
“It’s frustrating,” Gleeson acknowledged. “We played three games in 13 days – microwave championship was (the phrase) used. And then you have other teams in the same competition and they get three weeks’ preparation for it.
“We’re trying to ram our best product in the GAA into a small window – for what? It’s hard when we come down and you have eight or nine serious inter-county players who can’t take to the field.
“Everyone has their opinion on it. Why was it done?
“There’s teams gone by next week. You’re going to have counties where the kids won’t be exposed to their inter-county team playing, promoting the game.
“We’re just giving away our jewel in the crown and the space that we had for that.
“Even finishing in the middle of July and then facing into August and early September with no All-Ireland to look forward to.”
Leinster SHC permutations
The Top ⬤ Two of Kilkenny, Galway or Dublin will make the Leinster final; the other side will go into an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final against the Joe McDonagh Cup winner. ⬤ Kilkenny will qualify for the Leinster final with a win or a draw against Wexford. ⬤ Galway will qualify for the Leinster final with a win or a draw against Dublin this Sunday. ⬤ Dublin will qualify if they beat Galway and Kilkenny beat Wexford. Should Wexford beat Kilkenny, Dublin would need to beat Galway by a massive margin to advance.
The Bottom ⬤ One of Wexford, Westmeath or Antrim will be relegated to the Joe McDonagh Cup for the 2024 season. ⬤ Wexford will survive if they beat Kilkenny this Sunday in Chadwicks Wexford Park. If they lose, and Antrim beat Westmeath in Cusack Park, Mullingar, Wexford will be relegated. ⬤ Westmeath will survive if they win or draw with Antrim or if Kilkenny beat Wexford. ⬤ Antrim need to win in Mullingar and Kilkenny to beat Wexford to maintain their Leinster SHC status for 2024.