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*Antrim hurling manager, Darren Gleeson. 

In his first full season as Antrim senior hurling manager, Darren Gleeson guided the Ulster county back to the top tier of senior inter-county hurling with victory in the McDonagh Cup.

Having previously been involved as a coach with the team in 2019, the Tipperary native stepped into the role as manager in 2020 and steered the Ulster county to the All-Ireland senior championship for 2021 while also leading them back to Division 1 of the Allianz League for the first time since 2008.

They went through last year’s league undefeated, winning five and drawing one of their six league games, including victory over Kerry in the Division 2 League final which was played in October. Eight weeks later they met in Croke Park in the curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland senior hurling final where Antrim were 0-18 to 1-13 winners in the Joe McDonagh cup.

“For Antrim the league is fierce important. Staying in the top division will allow us to develop the younger players. This is a big step for us and we are keen to establish ourselves in Division 1”, the team manager told The Clare Echo this week.

A native of Portroe in North Tipperary, Gleeson travels to Belfast three times a week to train the squad. “We brought in eight new lads to the panel this year and we now have thirty six players in training. As I said the league is very important to us and particularly the first game as we have home advantage. This is a serious group and there is not much between the teams. It’s a big step for us”

The Antrim boss believes that his charges face a difficult task on Sunday. “Clare rode out a difficult test against Laois last year before beating a good Wexford side comfortably. They ran out of a big of steam against Waterford when they weren’t helped by an injury to Tony Kelly in the warm up. Brian Lohan, Sean Treacy, James Moran and Ken Ralph have done a great job and they are hitting an upward curve.

“Down here in Tipperary we have seen what Sean Treacy has done with Kildangan and he is highly thought of down here. The people who are writing Clare off are mistaken”, according to Gleeson who has worked with Lohan and James Moran in the past while he has met with Ken Ralph through his work in Shannon on a number of occasions. “There is a great panel there and they have brought in a few fresh faces as well this year”, the two-time All-Ireland SHC winner added.

Antrim have had the same amount of time to prepare for the league as Clare. “Ulster GAA followed the association’s guidelines as regards the return to training. Clubs were allowed back a week earlier in the North so the boys had a week with their clubs before they came back to us. They came in on the Monday night with a bit of hurling under their belts.

“We are all happy to be back hurling and we are looking forward to Sunday’s game at Corrgan Park which is in excellent condition. Getting a result in the opening game will take a lot of pressure off and having the first game at home is massively important. After Sunday we will be on the road to Kilkenny and Dublin. As of now we have a full squad available for selection”, according to Gleeson whose backroom team includes former Waterford goalkeeper, Clinton Hennessy who is the Antrim goalkeeping coach.

The Antrim team for Sunday’s game won’t be named until later this week but it is set to include the experienced Neil McManus along with Ryan Elliot, Ciaran Clarke and Matthew Donnelly to mention some. “Division 1 league hurling means a lot so the focus for this year is to establish ourselves there”, concluded Gleeson.

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