ANDY McEntee will have a surprise up his sleeve when his Antrim side make the journey to Armagh on Saturday evening for the opening round of the Ulster Championship, says his former right-hand man Colm Nally.
Nally, now coaching in the Orchard County having taken charge of Silverbridge, was part of McEntee’s backroom team in Meath when the Royal County reached back-to-back Leinster finals in 2019 and 2020 but lost to the all-conquering Dublin team on both occasions.
Louth native Nally suggests that McEntee can mix up his playing style and while he likes his team to be defensively sound, that’ll not take away from the attacking threat that Antrim pose through the likes of Odhran Eastwood, Dominic McEnhill and Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann.
“I would have crossed paths with Andy between coaching in Dublin and coaching in Meath,” explains Nally, a highly-rated coach.
“He was two years into the Meath senior job when he wanted to add to his backroom team, and he asked me would I go in and coach so in 2019. I took the role as the coach for Meath, and I stayed with Andy for the next four years.
“He’s an absolute gentleman and he’s very passionate about the sport. He has an idea of what he wants and how he wants it to be played. I think he was very competitive as a player; he was certainly very competitive as a manager.
“He has a fair idea of how he wants the game to be played and what he wants from his team. He always sets them out straight, they’re under no illusions of how he wants them to play, and I think that’s one of his biggest strengths.
“He’s a great communicator, players know exactly what their role is within the team. He’d be fairly well tuned in to the modern systems of the game, but he still believes that there’s room to play flamboyant football.
“So, while he would have a good eye for setting a team up defensively, he likes to have a little bit of attacking flair too. I enjoyed that challenge working with him because he doesn’t go ultra defensive, he doesn’t put everyone behind the ball, he doesn’t believe in that.
“He believes in having a defensive setup, trying to tap into the modern style, but he likes to have an attacking flair to his teams too.
“I’d be involved in some coaching groups through Croke Park and when the provinces would come together, any time there’d be the Ulster contingent there, they’d always be talking about the players that are within Antrim, that it’s a sleeping giant.
“Andy would have been well aware of that, he has his style in mind and I was talking to him a good bit, he went up to a lot of the club championship matches last year when he was appointed.
“He would have had a good look at the style of player there and he would have based his ideals on what he saw. He inherited a good squad on the way up and he’ll add his own take to it. It’ll probably take a bit of time, but I have no doubt he’ll turn them into a force if he sticks at it.”
Antrim finished third from bottom in Division Three, above the relegated duo of Tipperary and Longford, but that position doesn’t tell the full story that could lull Armagh into a false sense of security.
Antrim were the first team to defeat eventual champions Cavan and were also fiercely unlucky to lose out to Down and Fermanagh, conceding late goals on both occasions when they were in a position to win the game.
The Saffrons took a 31-point trouncing from Westmeath but showed great character to bounce back with a win over Cavan.
“A lot of these games can run to nearly 80 minutes and that’s very taxing on players. I think the Down match went to that and Down caught them in the 78th minute,” added Nally.
“Offaly, they beat Antrim by two goals and Antrim were very unfortunate, the Offaly ‘keeper made some really good saves, so they had enough opportunities, and the Fermanagh match was in their own hands as well.
“So, their form was really good but what impressed me most was the Westmeath match, for whatever reason the performance was well below par, but they bounced back really well in the next match against Cavan, to win what was a very important match.
“That shows that they have a little bit of durability about them and there’s a bit of fight in them which is really a positive sign and I’m sure Andy took great heart out of that performance.”
There’s no doubt Antrim are the underdogs heading into Saturday’s showdown, a notion that Nally agrees with, but he also believes McEntee will play on that and use it as a motivating factor inside the Saffron changing room.
“He’ll play on that; he’ll use that big time,” continued Nally. “I would say he’d be working on one or two things behind the scenes in training and I’d have no doubt he’d have been working on these things throughout the year.
“But these things take time to put in place, you can’t just go in and say we’re going to play this way or that way. You have to working on multiple systems behind the scenes and on the day against Armagh you could see something different.
“They could put a lot of men behind the ball, they could ultra defensive, they might plan to stay in the game for as long as possible, but they will have something up their sleeves because that’s the way Andy works, he’d always have one eye on the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see something different.
“When you look at Armagh, I think Armagh are a brilliant team, I kind of fancy them to go all the way or get to the Ulster final. They didn’t score a whole pile in the league which was unusual compared to last year and they were very unfortunate to be relegated with five points.
“Everyone knows six points is the magic number in Division One. They had a tough league themselves, losing matches by a couple of points, but they were very competitive with Mayo, competitive with Galway, so their form lines are very good.
“I would say they just need to get a little bit more offensive and transition quicker and get a few more scores.
“But everything else ticks the box for them to be a top, top team.
“To their credit, which I think a lot of people don’t really speak about, they had a lot of injuries this year, so their panel strength has really improved because they’ve still been competitive despite some of the injuries they’ve had.
“That means that they have good, strong depth in their squad so I’d say they’re playing that card because that’s what you need for this championship, it’s going to be so tight and so fast, you need about 25 players that you can choose from on any day.
“You need a starting team, you need a finishing team, and you need a pushing team and I think Armagh have that. They have good squad numbers; a good starting team and they have a finishing team as well with their four or five subs per match.
“I wouldn’t say they’d be a wounded animal (following relegation); I’d say they’d be strategically planning their approach to this All-Ireland series and this Ulster Championship.
“I would say they’d expect to get off to a winning start against Antrim and then they have a tough match against Cavan. Avoiding Derry and avoiding Tyrone is a big plus for any of the teams on that side so they’d be planning for that, I’d imagine.”
While Nally may be cheering on his old friend’s team, he’ll have a keen eye on the Armagh players as well, particularly Silverbridge clubman Jarly Óg Burns, who he’ll be working with closely later in the year.
“I would have seen him playing, we would have played Armagh regularly in challenge matches when we were with Meath, and we played them in Division Two the year that Meath got promoted (2019).
“I’m well aware of Jarly Óg having coached against him. He’s a tremendous ambassador for Silverbridge, anything that’s going on in the club he’s involved in and when we play challenge matches or anything, he’s on the sideline watching.
“He’s a great supporter of the lads and all the lads love him. I’ve been around a lot of teams and at times you probably wouldn’t see your county player from one season to the other, but I’ve seen Jarly Óg more times that I remember seeing other county players at this time of the year.
“That’s a credit to him and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do for the club, I’ve a few ideas for him that we’ll have to keep under the hat until we have him.”