Allianz Hurling League Division 2A: Derry v Antrim (Sunday, Celtic Pk, 2pm)
Tom McLean believes Derry’s senior hurlers can draw inspiration from Eoghan Rua’s All Ireland heroics when the Oak Leafers begin their National League campaign against his native Antrim in Celtic Park on Sunday.
The Derry manager admitted he was devastated for Padraig O Mianain and his players after watching the Coleraine club fall agonisingly short of the Junior club title by 2-08 to 0-12 against Kilkenny’s Glenmore in Croke Park.
McLean also knows the heartbreak of an All Ireland defeat in headquarters after Derry lost out to Kerry in last season’s Christy Ring final but he believes Oak Leaf hurling can take positives from both experiences.
“I was absolutely heartbroken for Eoghan Rua but it gives you great heart to see a Derry team putting it up to a Kilkenny side in Croke Park,” explained McLean, “They were superb and I think had they gone on to win it not many would have been able to say they didn’t deserve to.
“If anything they started a bit tentatively and it cost them. They will probably look back and think, ‘Why didn’t we just go at it from the start?’ but that’s how it often is on these occasions as we know ourselves. Still, it shows hurling in the county is going in the right direction.”
Last season’s progress faces a stern test with a difficult opening to the Division 2A for Derry who meet Antrim, Westmeath and Carlow in their first three league matches and Dunloy man McLean admits he has mixed emotions about seeing the Saffrons drop out of Liam McCarthy Cup contention.
“We want to do well in all the competitions but we took it one game at a time last season and will do something similar this year rather than making big statements about what we want to achieve.Derry Senior manager, Tom McLean
“As an Antrim man I want to see Antrim playing and competing at the highest grade possible but they are in Division 2A now and our division will be better of for it,” added the Derry manager, “It makes the league better and even more competitive.
“This is the level both counties are at right now and it should be a good game of hurling on Sunday. A lot of the players know each other well and it will be all to play for on the day.
“I know the Antrim players well from the county league which I see plenty of. They are fine hurlers but Derry has some fine hurlers as well. Antrim will be a tough test but come Sunday night we should have a better idea of where we are at in terms of this season.”
It’s only eight months since Derry’s Christy Ring final defeat to Kerry but 15 of that panel are no longer available to the Oak Leafers and McLean’s team for the opener reflects that.
The Derry manager has lost experience of Kevin and Liam Og Hinphey and Ruairi McCloskey to retirement while Michael Warnock, Conor Quinn and Niall Ferris - among others - are unavailable while both Paddy Henry and Paddy McCloskey remain sidelined through injury.
Those losses have been offset by the return of Kevin Lynch’s Paddy Kelly and Banagher duo Oisin and Tiarnan McCloskey, all of whom start against Antrim. Eoghan Rua trio Ciaran Gaile, Ruaidhri Leonard and Thomas Magee all rejoined the panel this week after their recent club commitments and have been included on the bench.
“We’re good to go for Sunday,” added McLean, “Preparations were a bit slow but they have really picked up over the last few weeks. We have had to re-assemble a panel from last year because of the absentees and there are a few young lads coming in.
“The three retirements were quite high profile players and we will miss their experience but it’s up to the boys coming in to show they deserve the shirt. Those three aren’t the only players we won’t have from the panel that went to Croke Park but we have also got plenty of players coming back in. Between those and the players who are getting over injuries we have a good squad of 32 players.
“We also have a few minors stepping up this year while the Eoghan Rua players joined up at training this week for the first time.”
The Derry manager is not one for setting targets, preferring to take things one week at a time and ensuring the players stay focused on the next game.
“Last season we did not set targets,” he adds, “We want to do well in all the competitions but we took it one game at a time and will be looking to do something similar this year rather than making big statements about what we want to achieve.
“We know what to expect from Antrim. It’s a derby and a game everyone can look forward to. They have come down from playing at a higher grade than us but they are still a class team and will want to get back to Division 1B as soon as possible.
“Antrim have new management in and PJ O’Mullan will want to put down his own marker on the team. The players will also want to impress so it’s not an easy start for us. The first three teams we meet have all been Liam McCarthy teams recently but that is the calibre of team you want to be playing. It is only by playing these teams that we can improve and that’s the aim.”
The Derry team to play Antrim on Sunday at Celtic Park (2pm) is as follows:
1. Darrell McDermott (Banagher)
2. Eugene McGuckin (Swatragh)
3. Conor McSorley (Ballinascreen)
4. Seán McCullagh (Banagher) (Capt)
5. Darragh McCloskey (Banagher)
6. Paddy Kelly (Kevin Lynchs)
7. Dermot O’Neill (Lavey)
8. Oisín McCloskey (Banagher)
9. Tiarnán McCloskey (Banagher)
10. Jonathan O’Dwyer (Banagher)
11. Mark McGuigan (Slaughtneil)
12. Gareth O’Kane (Slaughtneil)
13. Shane Farren (Banagher)
14. Ruairi Convery (Swatragh)
15. Alan Grant (Na Magha)
16. Ciarán Gaile (Eoghan Rua)
17. Meehaul McGrath (Slaughtneil)
18. Breandán Quigley (Na Magha)
19. Brendan Douban (Na Magha)
20. Deaglán Foley (Na Magha)
21. Brendan Laverty (Lavey)
22. Johnny McCullagh (B’screen)
23. Mickey Conway (Swatragh)
24. Niall Farren (Banagher)
25. Ruaidhri Leonard (Eoghan Rua)
26. Thomas Magee (Eoghan Rua).