The rise of the Antrim hurlers has undoubtedly been the story of the National Hurling League.

Darren Gleeson has inspired a kick from the Saffrons, as they retained their Division 1 status with one round of games left to play, after a win over Clare and a draw with Wexford.

The latest sign of the strides made by the Ulster outfit is that Ciaran Clarke has been named as the PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month for May.

The Ballycastle man is relishing the ascent under Tipperary native Gleeson, and the panel is clearly not suffering from an inferiority complex in the top tier.

“We think it’s different this year. We believe we can compete with these teams and we believe we can go far but it’s about building on our last game and the game before that,” said Clarke.

“You’re always aiming to be the best you can be and compete against the so-called bigger teams.

“We had a fairly decent start to the league. We beat Clare. We maybe didn’t think we were going to perform as well. At the weekend we had Wexford and that sort of felt like a defeat. It maybe felt we could have got something out of the game or we could have got the win. There is a good buzz, there were a few supporters in which gave us a good lift and you could see that they were happy with it.”

So what is different this season, that has inspired such an upturn in fortunes?

“Since Darren has come in in the last couple of years it’s a very professional set up. There’s nothing you want for. If you ever need something, it’s there for you. You don’t have to ask,” Clarke noted.

“Everything is there. You have your nutrition and psychologist side of it. Everything is there for you.

“I can’t compare it to other counties but just comparing it to other years, it’s very professional.

“It’s probably the first year that we had all the best players in the county playing for us. They want to commit and, as you can see with the size of our panel, I think we have 36 in the panel, which is the first time we’ve ever had a panel that size and people wanting to go into it.”

It’s probably the first year that we had all the best players in the county playing for us.

Things have come together for Antrim this season

‘Everything has come together nicely’

After several years in hurling’s doldrums, Antrim were left looking from the outside as the elite competed for the Liam MacCarthy Cup. However, Clarke kept the faith.

“We always knew we could do it if we had the right players there and the right management,” he outlined.

“I think this year, everything has come together nicely. You have a nice mix of players there and you have a management team that instils belief in you that you can do it. That you are as good as the other players and teams.”

Now back at the top tier in both league and championship, they are learning valuable lessons against the best teams around.

“In a few of the league games we were slow starters and gave ourselves a bit of a hill to claw back. It’s something we need to work on,” Clarke said.

“On the other hand, it is good that we can claw that back. It’s a never-say-die attitude. We’re never beaten and we’re always in the game, no matter how many points we’re down.

“Towards the end of the games we seem to finish strong, which maybe shows we have the fitness and the strength and conditioning it takes to compete at that level.”

And after defying the odds already this season, the Antrim hurlers are not resting on their laurels.

“You always want more. I think one of the big things is never to be happy with what you’ve done. Yes you want to give a good account of yourself in championship, and you want to win your last league game and finish as high up as you can,” said Clarke.

“I wouldn’t take it as a successful season at the minute. You would want to do well in championship.”

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