Wednesday 21 March 2018

Nelson hoping to be pillar of strength for the Saffrons

Jerry Watson has made a quick return to Antrim's sideline, writes Dermot Crowe "Watch out Brian Cody," Liam Dunne wryly remarked walking off the St Maur's GAA pitch in Rush, north county Dublin, on Friday evening. The venue played host to a challenge match between the hurlers of Wexford and Antrim, a useful workout before they engage in qualifier matches over the next two weekends.

Wexford won by a couple of points, 2-16 to 2-14, on an immaculately manicured pitch but the evening turned sour with rain and winds giving a distinctly unseasonal atmosphere. Wexford were without their under 21 players who have a Leinster semi-final assignment this week against Kilkenny. Antrim's Liam Watson looked on from the sideline, having twisted an ankle the previous evening. He said afterwards he'll be ready for the winners of Limerick and Laois on Saturday week.

The most interesting sideline presence, however, and the most surprising was undoubtedly Jerry Wallace. The Corkman resigned a week earlier after a bizarre spat with RTE but clearly had a change of heart and has resumed his four-and-a-half-hour marathon drives from Midleton to help the team prepare for the qualifiers after a disappointing Leinster championship loss to Westmeath.

Wallace will have a revised role as a team selector and his return, while certainly odd, does not diminish Jim Nelson's status as manager. Nelson was appointed on Tuesday night last and Friday night's game was his first in charge of Antrim since the defeat by Limerick in the 1994 All-Ireland semi-final.

While a long time out of inter-county hurling, he coached Loughgiel for the last two years, taking over after they had lost six successive county finals, before leading them to an All-Ireland title last March, when Watson inspired an emphatic win over Coolderry.

Following Friday night's game, both managers were recalling a past alliance when they were part of the All Stars tour of 1991 in Toronto, Nelson as manager, Dunne as a player. Dunne even had his complimentary bag from that trip. His Wexford team play Westmeath, the conquerors of Antrim, in the qualifiers at Wexford Park on Saturday next. If they win that they face Carlow, so they have plenty to play for.

Antrim may have one final challenge game, against Offaly, next weekend before they train their attentions on the qualifiers. They know their season could be short. If they lose that match they have an Ulster final a week later and that would be the end of their championship interest for the year.

Nelson was happy to answer the emergency call after Wallace's departure. "I suppose it was an SOS, it was pretty quick the way it happened. I thought 'yeah I'll just step in and do it' because I would probably know as much about the Antrim situation as anybody.

"Loughgiel was an enjoyable journey because Loughgiel, in fairness to them, knuckled down and anything asked of them they got done. The one thing you can't coach is desire.

"Probably for Antrim, if you were being honest, the important game is the 30th of June (qualifier), not the 8th of July (Ulster final) because your season finishes if you haven't won the previous week. There is no way I would try to demean the Ulster final but being honest the 30th of June is the complete focus for this group of players."

The last time he led Antrim into an Ulster final they knew the reward for winning was an All-Ireland semi-final place. The odds on Antrim getting back to Croke Park have lengthened greatly in the time since. Both Antrim and Wexford have known better days with the 1996 All-Ireland winners 300/1 to win the All-Ireland. Antrim are 500/1. Inter-county hurling: it's not all glamour.

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