"In hurling, the system really works. The Leagues are structured well and so are the championships" 5 months ago

"In hurling, the system really works. The Leagues are structured well and so are the championships"

Just like Patrick Horgan with Cork or TJ Reid with Kilkenny, when you think Antrim hurling, you automatically think Neil McManus.

So when Antrim make it to Joe McDonagh Cup final day, you reason that, unless his two legs are hanging off, then Neil McManus would be first name on the team-sheet just like he has been for the last 14 years.

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Having pulled his hamstring in the League final, McManus was back in the groove the week before D-day but he took it as a positive sign for this Antrim hurling team, rather than a downer for himself, when he realised that there was no breaking into that winning team.

"God no, I could have no complaints, none at all. The boys were flying, doing so, so well. Some of the performances during the Joe McDonagh were some of the best I've seen from Antrim for a long, long time. So there was no quibbles from me about not starting. I very possibly wouldn't have lasted the whole game anyway," he says in an interview on Thursday's GAA Hour Show.

As it turned out, McManus was introduced with a half an hour to go and it was typical of the man too, when he knocked over four big boomers of points when the game was there to be won.

"Given the chance to start, I'd have went for it. But you have to be realistic about the thing too."

"It was one of the most nervy affairs I'd ever been involved with," he says of their clash with Kerry.

"Plenty of people said that the quality on show that day wasn't hectic, but it wasn't a fair reflection on the performances Antrim or Kerry had put in en-route to that final."

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It might stop some people in their tracks to discover that there is someone out there who is actually praising GAA structures, but when it comes to hurling's house, McManus feels things are in order.

"In hurling, the system really works. The Leagues are structured well and so are the championships. If you win a Joe McDonagh Cup, you're going to be ready to compete at least. There's no doubt that you get a bounce off that."

With Darren Gleeson calling the shots, the progress has continued for Antrim who began their 2021 League campaign with a head-turning victory over Clare. McManus, however, isn't getting carried away and is raring for another scalp or two as the year goes on.

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"It's where we want to be. It's the place where our youngsters will get the exposure that will allow them to grow.

"You know yourself, in the middle of the league, you're not going to be going for pints," he says when asked if there were any celebrations after Sunday's win.

"But there was a time, at the start of my career when definitely, you'd have went for pints any Sunday night after a League match! You'd only be asking for trouble wouldn't you!"

Most importantly of all, there is a pride in that saffron and white jersey again.

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"It's been easier at certain periods to get an Antrim jersey. It's tough at the minute. There's a hell of a lot of competition for places. There is a good crop of young lads there who are grateful for the opportunity to play for Antrim and to wear that jersey. There is definitely times when people have taken that opportunity for granted. I can't say that I ever did, because I enjoy it so so much. Everyone wants to be involved now and hopefully we can emulate the success we had last year again."

That man will still be there, front and centre, just like he always seems to be.