Gleeson draws inspiration from Antrim great McNaughton as new Saffrons chapter looms

Antrim hurling boss Gleeson excited by next Saffrons chapter

"Playing county, teammates will invite you to their wedding, but playing with your clubs are the boys that will carry you to your grave."

That soul-stirring quote, attributed to Antrim hurling giant Terence McNaughton, is one that really hit home with Darren Gleeson.

Appointed Antrim boss in 2019, Gleeson was tasked with leading the Saffrons through a new era, an era that could perhaps evoke memories of that great Antrim side in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Having been involved in Neal Peden's coaching team, the former Tipperary goalkeeper had become acquainted with Antrim hurling before stepping into the hot seat.

But if Gleeson was nervous about his first foray into management, it rarely showed during a 2020 campaign that barely could have gone any better.

After leading Antrim to the Division 2A title, Gleeson masterminded a landmark win over Kerry in the Joe McDonagh Cup final at Croke Park in December, booking the Saffrons' place in this year's Leinster Championship.

Antrim held off Kerry to win the Joe McDonagh Cup at Croke Park in December
Antrim held off Kerry to win the Joe McDonagh Cup at Croke Park in December

Now, as inter-county hurling awakens from its five-month hibernation over winter, Gleeson still finds McNaughton's words - which were uttered during The Game, RTE's 2018 documentary series on the history of hurling - rattling around in his mind as he tries to instil that indestructible togetherness so often seen at club level into his county panel.

"I put a lot of thought into that, I have great respect for Terence and I was in his house several times to talk about Antrim hurling," says Gleeson.

"It just sat with me and I thought 'if I was going to the grave in the morning, I'd expect one or two of my very close friends from Tipperary to be underneath the coffin - so it resonated with me.

"I think it's so important that you bring that into a county set-up. We got it in Tipp and with the other counties that were successful, there's that closeness."

Gleeson says he was "delighted" to see Saffron representation at Antrim captain Conor McCann's wedding, with three players hoisting their hurleys aloft to form half a guard of honour for the newlyweds.

Creggan and Antrim players form a guard of honour for Conor McCann at his wedding
Creggan and Antrim players form a guard of honour for Conor McCann at his wedding

Three of McCann's Creggan clubmates were on the other side, completing a powerful symbol of McCann's love for both club and county hurling.

"As a county manager, to see our captain with his county and club boys, it said to me that there's a friendship there as well," added Gleeson, who gladly tackles the near four-hour commute from his Tipp home for training and home matches.

Gleeson, twice an All-Ireland winner with Tipp, feels as though he has cultivated a winning mentality within the Antrim panel - one, he hopes, will stand them in good stead during a big year for the county.

Evidence of Antrim's ability to grind out results could be seen in their 2020 League opener against Wicklow in Aughrim as Gleeson's side sought to extinguish the pain of a last-gasp defeat by Offaly in the Kehoe Cup final.

"There was great nervousness that day.

"We were expected to win, we were going into the unknown as our first real game as the group. I thought the boys were terrific, the way they went about it.

Two-time All-Star Tony Kelly will be part of the Clare panel at Corrigan Park on Sunday
Two-time All-Star Tony Kelly will be part of the Clare panel at Corrigan Park on Sunday

"We didn't hurl well and they absolutely dogged it out [to claim a nine-point win]. Coming out of that, everyone was disappointed, but I was delighted because I knew I had something there."

That is all in the books, of course, with Gleeson focusing purely on Sunday's Division 1B opener against 2013 All-Ireland winners Clare in Belfast.

"Hopefully we'll bring what we do on the training field, but you have to remember that Clare are a serious team.

"They were All-Ireland champions as a young team, so they're in their physical maturity now. The likes of Tony Kelly, still a young player, you have John Conlon, Aron Shanagher, David McInerney, all serious hurlers.

"Some of the top hurlers in the country are coming up here at the weekend."

But Gleeson isn't overly bothered with the star power present in the current Banner set-up. His main concern is coaxing yet another gutsy performance out of his players.

"We're going to be there, focused on Antrim. We're going to give it one hell of a rattle."

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