Hurling League: Neal Peden primed for Saffron rebuilding job after taking role

Neal Peden played in three All-Ireland Hurling semi-finals for Antrim
Neal Peden is a former head of PE at Rathmore Grammar School in Belfast

"I enjoy working with young people. I enjoy their enthusiasm and I feed off it".

Neal Peden is sitting in a Belfast coffee shop explaining why he has taken on the job that seemingly nobody else wanted.

After a 50-minute conversation, he leaves you in no doubt about the commitment he is going to give - indeed that he is already giving - to managing the Antrim senior hurling team.

As you drive away down the Lisburn Road, you still have your doubts whether his work ethic, undoubted organisational skills and enthusiasm will drive the Saffrons back to hurling's top table.

After all, great hurling men such as Terence McNaughton, Dominic McKinley, Kevin Ryan and PJ O'Mullan have all, amid frustration, walked away from the role in the last four years.

But the former Rathmore Grammar School head of PE's skills set and undoubted passion for the job makes you wonder whether he might just be the right man for the rebuilding job which managing the Saffron squad undoubtedly is at this moment in time.

Spent three childhood years in Libya

Rewinding back to the 58-year-old's childhood, we'll hopefully not be going out on a total limb by stating that he is the only inter-county manager who lived in Libya for three years.

His father worked as a meteorologist in the North African country between 1966 and 1969 before Muammar Gaddafi's ascent to power in a military coup led to the family decamping back from Tobruk to their native Belfast, just as things were starting to go awry at home as well.

The Peden family's house in Owenvarragh in west Belfast backed on to Casement Park so the young Peden quickly developed a particular love affair with hurling while also playing gaelic football.

"I would jump over the wall into Casement and go and playing hurling with friends like Jimmy Darragh and others.

"Straight away after coming back from Libya, I joined the Commedagh club which was basically made up of very young players who later ended playing for the likes of St John's, Rossa or St Gall's as in those days you didn't join a club until you were maybe 15.

"Commedagh won the All-Ireland Feile [Division Two] title in 1971 and I played on the '74 team that won it again."

His senior playing career at St John's saw him pick up four Antrim football medals - as they also lost the 1984 Ulster Club Final against Burren - but an Antrim hurling medal remained elusive after three final defeats by Cushendall.

However, Peden's hurling prowess saw him selected by both Sean McGuinness and Jim Nelson for the Antrim team in the mid and late 1980s.

Antrim hurling Jim Nelson (centre) is held aloft by then Antrim GAA chairman Oliver Kelly and team doctor Alasdair McDonnell
Jim Nelson (centre) guided Antrim to the 1989 All-Ireland Hurling Final but Peden missed out on the decider

Peden missed out on 1989 All-Ireland Final

Three All-Ireland semi-final appearances included a 1986 contest against eventual champions Cork who came from well behind to - helped by a hat-trick of goals from Jimmy Barry-Murphy - eventually subdue the Saffrons 7-11 to 1-24.

In 1989 Antrim did reach the All-Ireland decider against Tipperary after a stirring semi-final win over Offaly but Peden could only watch after missing out on two summers' of action at home following his decision to head to the USA.

"I played football and hurling in Chicago and San Francisco and played on a Wolfe Tones [Chicago] team along with Jack O'Shea, Jimmy Darragh and John 'Shorty' Treanor that won the All-American competition."

After regaining his place in the Antrim hurling squad, a serious knee injury in 1992 effectively ended Peden's playing career but his PE background led Nelson to soon draft him in as both trainer and selector of the county side.

However family commitments led Peden to cut back GAA coaching duties which also included his club's senior hurlers and the Queen's team by that stage.

"By 1997, I have three under fives so something had to give."

Peden continued to do great work for the GAA in his professional capacity at Rathmore as he helped ensure hurling became part of the school's curriculum.

Joins management team after O'Mullan exit

He did not return to the county fold until PJ O'Mullan's surprise departure after only five months in charge in April 2016 led to him joining a hastily put together management team fronted by McNaughton and McKinley, with Gary O'Kane also involved.

The quartet did guide the Saffrons back to Division One in 2017 but by their end of their tenure last summer, Antrim were again back in Division 2A - with summer second-tier success again proving elusive in the new Joe McDonagh Cup after final defeats in the two previous Christy Ring Cup competitions.

It's fair to say the Antrim county board were not exactly inundated with applications for the post with Slaughtneil boss and Ballycastle native Michael McShane linked with the job before Peden's appointment was confirmed, rather late in the day, in December.

After stepping down last September, McKinley spoke of his exasperation at getting the necessary commitment from young players "in the modern world" amid all the counter-attractions on offer.

Peden says McKinley's comments were "absolutely right" but that didn't stop him for taking on the Antrim challenge as he agreed to lead a management team that also includes the O'Kane, Jim Close and Karl McKeegan.

"A lot of players want to be a county player but they are not willing to adopt the lifestyle which will get them there in maybe three or four years," says Peden.

"They want it 'now'. That's where lifestyle comes in. Giving up the stags, giving that dedication to training. Guys are fit. There's no question about that but they want other things in their lives. Hurling is not everything."

Keelan Molloy is one of the bright hopes of Antrim hurling
Peden was delighted with Keelan Molloy's form during the recent Kehoe Cup

Peden puts faith in Antrim's youth

That's why Peden has particular admiration for the young players who have committed to the Saffron squad since getting the call from the manager in December.

"Kevin Rice from Creggan, Ahoghill's James O'Connell and Cushendun's Conor McHugh are all getting plenty of hurling along with our goalkeeper Ryan Elliott with the Ulster University team who has stepped up to the mark this year under Simon Doherty.

"Dunloy's Ronan Molloy and Phelim Duffin are with us now too while Keelan Molloy looked very sharp during the Kehoe Cup."

The Saffrons lost the Kehoe decider against Westmeath after a penalty shootout following earlier wins over Wicklow and Kildare but Peden was happy with what he saw.

"The young players stood up and were counted. There were plenty of big hits and tackles and some phases of really good hurling from us."

Neil McManus, Paddy Burke and Eoghan Campbell will be among a seven-strong Cushendall contingent who will link up with the squad after the All-Ireland Club series, with Peden also hopeful Joe Maskey will be available following St Enda's All-Ireland Club Intermediate Football final next month.

"At the moment, I'm looking at the 27 players I have available for the National League. We have John Dillon plus Simon McCrory and Mattie Donnelly who have been with the county for a number of years.

"James McNaughton is still only 21 and Keelan Molloy 20. Nigel Elliot has been on form for us and Ciaran Clarke, who is such a natural scorer and great competitor up front, is nearly there again for us after the bad injury he had last year."

Darren Gleeson retired from Tipperary duty after the 2017 season
Former Tipperary goalkeeper Darren Gleeson is part of Antrim's backroom team

Ex-Tipp keeper Gleeson giving 'big commitment'

Peden is also optimistic former Tipperary goalkeeper Darren Gleeson's input is also going to prove a boon for the squad.

"He came up last year and gave us good support and he is coaching along with the four of us this year.

"Darren is giving a really big commitment to us. He's coming up on a Tuesday night and at weekends and it's working out really well for us."

After all the flak that has been directed at successive Antrim county boards down through the years, Peden insists his panel are receiving the requisite backing.

"The county board look after us. There are good training structures in place. But we have got to get young people aspiring to play for Antrim and moving Antrim up higher to where they should be."

First up, it's Antrim's Division Two A opener against the county's recent nemesis Kerry at Corrigan Park on Saturday afternoon.

"I know I'm in a rough, tough game. I'm not naive and it's about results. But there has to be patience.

"Performance is vital. Results will come if performances are good."

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