They may be a bit off the pace in the league, and in danger of ending up on the wrong side of the split, but Cushendall manager Ciaran Kearney does not appear to be worried.
Having taken over the county and Ulster Champions this season, Kearney is understands the expectation that is on his team.
However, he has reason to be optimistic, and it is all due to Antrim hurler’s championship exit. As the Saffrons hurlers’ draw to a close, the players return to their clubs, and that is good news for Cushendall.
“It is a big thing for us,” Kearney said.
“We had eight players on the senior panel. It is a big chunk out of our squad, and affects what we are doing. We had five on the u-21s as well. I have no issue with that. It was a big thing for them.”
Cushendall had a big season last year. The won Antrim, then beat Ballycran in the Ulster final which led them to the All-Ireland series.
Pitted against St Thomas’s, Cushendall fancied their chances of reaching the decider, but came up agonisingly short, losing by a point, 2-11 to 0-18.
Eamon Gillen was the main man last year, but Ciaran Kearney junior took over for this season.
“We didn’t put as much emphasis on training. We want to be competitive in the league. We want to make sure that we are on the right side of the split.
“We have four games over the next four weeks. After those games we will know whether we will be in the top half.
“To be honest, we have no massive desire to win the league. We have no expectations of that. But you want to be in the top five leading in to the championship. That is vitally important.”
Championship is the big one for Cushendall. They are bidding to win title number 15, and their fourth in six years.
Back to back titles are difficult to win. And recovering from an All-Ireland run is hard.
Their group this year is Dunloy, Ballycastle and Rossa.
“Rossa are a funny club. Last year they had a lot of injuries and players missing. But if they are full strength they are a super team.
“Ballycastle are back up in divison one and they are making a statement this year. Getting back in division one was important, so they will want to push on. And Dunloy, well we all know what they are capable of.”
Cushendall have a couple of departures from last year. Eunan McKillop retired, while Sean McAfee is away.
Conor Carson is pursuing his career as a pilot, while Arran Graffin is recovering from injury. Kearney said he wasn’t sure how long it will take for Graffin to return to action.
There’s better news about Christy McNaughton who is close to a return.
All that, pared up with the intercounty departures has made for a challenging period for the Cushendall hurlers, and goes some way to explain why they are in fifth place in the league. With the county players back, the work begins to get them ready for the championship.
“We are quite a bit away with different injuries. We have had games where we did not have the county players. Other lads have put their hands up. So there is quality there. We have players who we thought were fringe players who are becoming more important to the team. It has been good that we can give the other lads game time. They can see that they are important to the team.”
Kearney said that the plan now is to get onto the training pitch to get the team gelled together again.
And Kearney suggested that we may see a Cushendall team that has developed a new style.
“People would say that we have a direct style. But with players unavailable we have had to try and change things up.”
Kearney said that the team respond to change well. He said there are big personalities on the team like Paddy Burke, Neil McManus, Martin Burke who provide leadership.
“We don’t need to motivate them. They are very good at driving themselves on.”
But there are also newer players, such as Emmett Laverty, Liam Gillen and Dom Delargy who are making their first tentative steps into senior hurling, and have proved that they can handle the pressure.
“They have played in the first few senior games and have done very well,” Kearney said.
“It is just a case of getting more experience.”