By Shaun Casey
FROM the outset, it was fairly obvious that Antrim and Westmeath’s fates were going to come down to the final day where the two sides meet head on, with the winner retaining their place in the Leinster Championship and the All-Ireland series.
Westmeath fired a spanner into the works last weekend however when they upset the odds to overturn Wexford, in Wexford Park, by two points. That sees the Lake County and Wexford both rest one point above Antrim at the foot of the table.
Antrim’s solitary point picked up on the first day of the campaign, following a 1-19 each draw with Dublin, sees them needing a win with one game remaining and anything less won’t do. The last thing Antrim want is another season in the Joe McDonagh Cup.
Darren Gleeson’s men earned promotion through the same competition last year, edging past Kerry in the final, and secured their spot in Division 1B once again for 2024, with their round four win over Laois enough to fend off relegation fears.
But a couple of months on and the Saffrons, who head into the game after heavy back-to-back defeats to table-toppers Kilkenny and Galway, find themselves back in that same battling position where only a win will do.
Only those top two teams have scored more than Antrim, the problem is that no one has conceded more than the Ulster side. Antrim have claimed at least a goal each game in the championship, and scored three against Kilkenny, but have conceded ten in their last two outings.
Conal Cunning has top scored for the Saffron’s with 1-33 in four outings and he’s assisted up top by the likes of James Naughton, Neil McManus – injured currently – and Niall McKenna. Ryan Elliot is a commanding presence between the sticks, with Ryan McGarry and Gerard Walsh the mainstays at the back.
If Antrim are going to hold on to their top tier status, they’re going to need their defence to stand up and be counted against a Westmeath side that have scored way less than everyone else in the competition.
Dublin are their closest contenders in terms of scoring rates, and the Dubs have hit 27 more points than Westmeath. But the 4-18 posted last weekend against Wexford shows that when the pressure is on, the men in maroon can produce the goods.
Westmeath, who will have the comforts of playing on home soil in Sunday’s clash, also avoided relegation from the league by the skin of their death, Joe Fortune’s men defeating Laois by four points in the relegation play-off.
So just as Antrim have had plenty of big game experience where everything is on the line, so have Westmeath. That will make for an intense and an intriguing match up and it could come down to who handles the pressure better.
Antrim have shown glimpses of their quality this season and they’ll need all those attributes to come to the fore this weekend to secure their position as a Liam McCarthy team in 2024.