A summer of remarkable hurling drama arguably hit its highest point on Saturday when the Antrim under-21 hurlers defeated Kilkenny’s Leinster final conquerors, Wexford.
What was more remarkable, even sensational, was the post match comments from the Antrim manager, Kevin Ryan when suggesting interest in the team was poor at the start of the campaign.
Antrim’s first goal summed up Wexford’s day when their goalie failed to hold an easy delivery. It was the first of many blunders from the Wexford side.
Against Kilkenny in the Leinster final Wexford gave a fiercely committed performance. Kilkenny could and possibly should have won that final and the general feeling was that the winners would have an easy passage to the All-Ireland final.
Wexford’s performance in Semple Stadium on Saturday was abject. I have no doubt their mentors warned against complacency but the mental approach of the players was all wrong.
Lack of confidence
Antrim have some fine hurlers but so many defeats at all grades have knocked their confidence. Their trip to Thurles was seen within the county as a damage limitation exercise. OnSaturday the young Antrim lads knew from an early stage that they were more than a match for their opponents.
The tactic, clearly taken from the Clare training manual, which saw an extra defender deployed, was obviously aimed at keeping the scores to the minimum. That tactic demands extra work from the attack and this is where the Antrim players really came up trumps.
Admittedly some poor defending helped their cause, but there was much to admire about their work ethic and the support from every player. We waited for the Wexford fightback but it did not arrive until the closing minutes.
It would have been an injustice, though, had Antrim lost. After the final whistle Kevin Ryan, the Antrim manager, gave the obligatory interview to TG4.
It was one of the most remarkable and honest interviews I have ever heard. Ryan, an excellent coach and a great hurling man, was clearly astounded to have won. His assessment was that a seven or eight point defeat would have been seen as a good performance.
But it was his comments on the preparation of his side leading up to the game which must have astounded everyone watching. Ryan was given very little time with his players due to a clash with club fixtures. Media reports indicated that club football games were fixed for last weekend in Antrim which meant the manager did not have access to all his players.
I do not know if this was actually the situation, but the Waterford man clearly had big problems assembling his squad for meaningful preparations. Ryan spoke of travelling all the way to Antrim (from Waterford) and having just a handful of players present at training.
Matters improved in the past two to three weeks, but how must he have felt travelling that long journey for what surely felt like a futile exercise.
Antrim’s win was historic in that it will be the first time for the county to appear in an All-Ireland final at the grade. Facing the Glensmen in the final will be Clare.
There will be no complacency in Clare’s attitude. It could be a very challenging evening for Antrim when they return to Semple Stadium.
The result was a terrible setback for Wexford hurling. As Leinster champions, more was expected of them.