ANTRIM manager Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton has urged his players to commitment to the ‘lifestyle’ of a county player ahead of next season.
McNaughton has also vowed to end what he calls the ‘drop-in centre’ mentality of the county squad after the Saffrons were hampered by the unavailability of several players throughout a difficult 2016 campaign.
Last week it was announced that the management team of McNaughton, Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley, Gary O’Kane and Neal Peden will continue at the helm despite initially stepping down after the Ulster Championship campaign.
McNaughton revealed the quartet had originally planned to oversee the appointment of a new manager but suitable candidates were few and far between.
“The reality is that the county board and ourselves tried to find somebody. I think the job needs local people with local knowledge,” said McNaughton.
“We can’t afford at this minute to pay big money for an outsider to take the hurlers.
“We have to try and close the gap to the Westmeaths and the Carlows of this world and get back up again.
“Hopefully we can put the foundations in place for somebody to come in and take it on in a year or two.
“I think there is work to be done. We have to get back to our core values where people are committed and dedicated.
“We didn’t really get working with the team that much this year. We are where we are and we are going to try to take the next step.”
McNaughton, McKinley, O’Kane and Peden were appointed back in March when PJ O’Mullan stepped down after Antrim failed to challenge for promotion from Division 2A. Antrim then went on to lose the replayed Christy Ring Cup final to Meath after extra-time before ending the year with a hard-earned win over Armagh in the Ulster final.
Throughout the year, various players dropped off the panel due to travel and holiday commitments. Sambo said that the 2017 panel must be committed for the entire year as the Saffrons seek put a turbulent season behind them.
“People booking holidays in the middle of the year and going to America and that – people are being left soul-destroyed,” said McNaughton.
“That shows a lack of commitment to the county.
“I know people who have moved their wedding to play hurling.
“You have these social hurlers as I call them.
“We have to stop this drop-in centre mentality. I made a statement years ago ‘until we stop looking at the car park to see who is turning up, we are going nowhere’.
“You could be the most skilful player in Ireland but, if you don’t turn up, you are no use.
“I think we have enough good hurlers to move forward if they commit.
“Every club in Antrim has a role to play.
“We have to put our shoulder to the wheel. Everybody has to buy in to this for the good of hurling in Antrim.”
Antrim problems are not just confined to the senior panel however. The county minors and U21s suffered heavy defeats in the All-Ireland series while the apathy towards the county team was highlighted by an incident involving the county’s U16 development squad last weekend, as McNaughton revealed.
“Antrim U16s left on Friday to play in the Championship weekend in Tipperary. There are boys who put in the effort with those players all year and trained them all year,” said the Cushendall native.
“There were nine Belfast-based players on the panel and, when they went to lift them on Friday, one player turned up.
“The other eight went to Tennent’s Vital. On the most important weekend of the year. . . and they kept eight other players off the panel. Who is to blame for that? The parents? The clubs? Someone has to take responsibility for that.
“Things like that are happening in Antrim all the time.
“If you are the guys who trained those lads all year and you are asked to take them again next year, what would you say?
“There lies the problem. We have to make it an honour to play for this county.
“If they are treating the county like that at 16, they are going to do it at minor, U21 and senior.
“That is a fundamental problem we have to address.”
McNaughton also feels big changes are needed to address Antrim’s shortcomings when it comes to the minor and U21 grades.
The Antrim minors won the Ulster title but were hammered 2-22 to 0-8 by Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final while the Saffrons lost out to Waterford 5-25 to 1-8 in their All-Ireland semi-final.
“I would worry because we are not closing the gap at minor and U21, for various reasons – lack of work and lack of commitment,” commented McNaughton.
“There is an apathy within the county.
“Maybe we should scrap the development squad and take one group of 15 year-olds and work with them right the way through to minors.
“Put our best people there instead of spreading ourselves too thin.
“I think we have to look at the U21s because I would think we would have a fair few seniors on the U21 panel.
“They will have to work harder from earlier in the year because we can’t keep doing what we are doing.
“Winning Ulster and going down and getting beat by 20 or 25 points has to stop.
“You have to try something different because what we have been doing ain’t working.
“There is no secret to this. Players have to put the work in, clubs have to put the work in.
“It isn’t going to happen overnight.”
As for the make-up of the senior squad next year, McNaughton doesn’t envisage wholesale changes, despite a bitterly disappointing 2016 campaign.
He stressed that every player will be given a fair crack at making the cut, provided they are prepared to put the work in.
“You have to find people who are ambitious to start with,” said the Antrim co-manager.
“There will be a few changes to the panel. We would have our ideas.
“We would know the majority of the hurlers in Antrim anyway. There will always be an open door and everybody will be given their chance.
“We are not going in with any pre-conceived notion about any player.
“Everyone will be given a fresh chance to prove themselves as county hurlers.”
McNaughton also hopes to be able to call upon the services of his fellow Cushendall native, Neil McManus along with Dunloy’s Paul Shiels for next season. McManus opted to go travelling after the All-Ireland Club Championship while Shiels was unavailable after undergoing hip surgery.
He made his long-awaited return to action last weekend but was unable to stop the Cuchullain’s losing out to Ballycastle in the Senior Championship quarter-final last Sunday. However, the inter-county future of Arron Graffin remains uncertain.
“Arron is in Australia and I don’t know when he plans to return,” said McNaughton.
“He would obviously be on the panel if he was available.
“Shorty (Paul Shiels), McManus and Graffin are top-class Antrim players – no team could afford to be without them.
“I’d be confident that McManus will be back and I know Shorty is working hard to come back from injury and I would see them as part of our future.
“We also have to find new players, guys who want to wear the Antrim jersey and who are committed to driving Antrim forward.”