Healy aiming to take Armagh a step further down the stretch

PETER Healy isn’t talking too long before you get the sense of why Andy McEntee left the captaincy Enda McGinley had in place for the previous two seasons.

Healy speaks clearly, with both thought and positivity. The glass is half full.

He played every game last season and after sitting out the McKenna Cup earlier this year, he has been ever-present with a goal to his name in Antrim’s campaign that deserved more than the survival mission it spiralled into.

After Armagh this weekend and whatever the championship portion of 2023 throws up, the Naomh Éanna man is bullish about where the Saffrons need to get to.

He looks at Louth’s progress and wonders. Three consecutive years in Division Three is progress of sorts. But they want more.

“We started the season with the intention of going up,” Healy said when he picks through the rubble of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory against Down and Fermanagh. How did they lose?

That was after their league opener with Offaly and their second half ‘squandermania.’ The Longford game could well have been a promotion tilt rather than an end of campaign dead-rubber.

Two years ago, Antrim gave Armagh all they wanted in the championship. Trailing 1-6 to 0-7 to Rory Grugan’s goal at the break, the tide changed with the Orchard County dominating the third quarter.

Antrim’s championship world caved in when Luke Mulholland’s kick-out ended up in Armagh’s hands leading to a 45th-minute penalty Rian O’Neill converted to leave Armagh winning the third quarter 1-5 to 0-2 before Conor Turbitt and Tiernan Kelly rattled the net in a ruthless victory.

Two years on and Healy points to the impact of Kieran McGeeney’s bench. Kelly and Turbitt hit 2-1 to Conor Small’s single point. It was more than that, it was the physicality.

“We have done a lot of work over the last year or two and hopefully we can be in the game in the second half,” Healy said of the Antrim progress.

“We want to give a good show of ourselves and be in the game in the last five or 10 minutes.”

A scan back over Andy McEntee’s first season at the helm in Antrim is a bobbing line of progress. Up and down gradually with a group of players without Cargin trio of James Lavery, Mick and Tomás McCann. Dermot McAleese sits it out with injury.

The piece that doesn’t fit is a 31-point hammering in Mullingar. Yes, Westmeath are a formidable team, but such a margin isn’t a reflection.

Healy references the fact it was the same day Liverpool filleted Manchester United 7-0. Dialogue was needed, but it wasn’t dwelt on before Antrim filed it away under the ‘one of those days’ category.

“We thought we were good going into it, but when things didn’t start well it got a bit out of hand,” Healy offered.

“We knew it wasn’t us. We talked the about the character in the dressing room that we had shown in some of the big games were in beforehand.”

Then came Cavan and a 10-point lead in Corrigan that didn’t flatter Antrim. Not in the slightest. Paddy McBride was majestic. Eoghan McCabe pumped the ball forward when it needed to be thumped forward and Antrim got their game-defining first goal from it.

But back came Cavan. Paddy Lynch and Conor Madden found the back of the onion bag. Another capitulation was on the cards.

“You have to lose to learn,” Healy offers of what they took out of their near misses and how it ties inwith this weekend’s championship opener.

Character was shown. When it comes down to the last 10 minutes, it’s simple – you need to want the ball. It’s all about making something happen.

“In those games we lost, we talked about what we were doing in the last 10 minutes and what we were not doing in the last 10 minutes,” Healy said.

“We tried to be more proactive and when we get the ball, we go forward and not be negative and sit back.

“The first thing we did when we won those kick-outs (late on against Cavan) was get up the field to try and get a score.

“We were able to take one or two points to keep the game ticking over, whereas in the other games we were sitting back and being conservative.”

Antrim’s constant battle is narrowing the gulf to Ulster’s top dogs.

Healy speaks of their long, hard road and for all the bumps along the way, they’ve had the legs for much of what Division Three had to offer.

“We showed in the big games against Cavan, Down and Fermanagh that we’ve been brave and gone for it. We have got the legs for it if we show up.”

Healy speaks of Antrim’s Gaelfast initiative and raising the awareness of Gaelic football in a county where the big ball competes with hurling and soccer.

“There is no secret that the league is our priory because we are trying to get up a level,” Healy said of the group’s MO.

They’ll park that on Saturday. Andy McEntee is fully aware how Kieran McGeeney’s relegated troops will have a sting in the tail.

For Healy and for Antrim, they need to bottle what they brought to Cavan and unleash it this weekend.

Being four points adrift of eventual Ulster champions Cavan in 2020 is as close as Peter Healy has come to winning a game in the Ulster Championship.

It’s a stat he’ll be hell bent on tearing up on Saturday.

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