By Damian Dolan
Birmingham was only meant to be a stop-gap for former Antrim star Niall McKenna and clubmate and childhood friend Garry Lennon. A place to earn some extra money before going travelling to Thailand and Australia.
Hurling definitely wasn’t on the agenda, let alone running out at Croke Park on Saturday in the Nicky Rickard Cup final (thrown in 4pm).
But those plans had to be put on the back burner, as McKenna and Lennon first helped Warwickshire to Division 2A success, and then pushed even further back as a Nicky Rackard Cup final place beckoned.
“We didn’t know this was going to happen – we didn’t plan to be over here playing,” McKenna told the Irish World.
“We were meant to be starting off [traveling] from here, but we’ve ended up staying a bit longer than intended.”
Working at Warwickshire University, on the groundworks for the university’s new student accommodation, it just so happened that some of their co-workers hurled for John Mitchels in Birmingham.
Once they learnt of McKenna and Lennon’s prowess, they got the pair down to training, and soon enough they made their way on to Tony Joyce’s radar.
“Garry and I spoke to each other, and we just said ‘we’ll give it a go and stay with it’,” added McKenna, who has no regrets over the decision to defer their trip.
He said: “It’s been brilliant, but I wasn’t too keen on it at the start, because of my history with Antrim.”
That changed, though, once he started training with the county’s hurlers.
“It’s [Warwickshire] like a club team. All of the boys are brilliant, and I get on like a house on fire with all of them. We’d be close friends. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”
While Warwickshire will hope to draw on last year’s winning Lory Meagher Cup final experience, McKenna only has unfinished business with Croker.
In 2016, he was part of the Antrim side denied Christy Ring success by an error. The scoreboard and the referee initially agreed that Meath had won the game by one point (2-18 to 1-20).
A problem appears to have arisen when the scoreboard was incorrectly updated in the 63rd minute to account for a score by McKenna, which should have put the Saffrons up by five.
The CCCC ordered the game be replayed, and three weeks later both sides returned to Croker where Meath won by 4-21 to 5-17.
Last year, Antrim and McKenna made it back to the final only to lose out to Carlow by 5-23 to 4-15.
“This is one I’m going to win – definitely,” said McKenna, and he and his Warwickshire teammates certainly won’t be short of confidence when they face Donegal.
“It’s hard not to believe it with Tony as your manager – he’s a good motivator. He’d have you believing you can go out and beat Tipperary,” said McKenna, for whom 2017 certainly wasn’t without its highs.
Having started the year by winning NHL Division 2A with the Saffrons, he ended it with an Antrim Intermediate hurling and Junior football championship and league double with his club, Patrick Sarsfield’s.
2018 would give it a run for its money, though, if McKenna could finally end that Croke Park hoodoo.
He said: “It would be great to do it with the boys. We’re not just teammates, we’re all friends off the pitch.”
Had his plans come to fruition, McKenna would have been thousands of miles away in Thailand or Australia on 23 June. As it is, he has the chance for redemption and to be the most unlikeliest of Croke Park heroes.