A new challenger awaits the Saffrons in league showdown

National Football League Division Four final

Antrim v Leitrim

Sunday, Parnell Park, 2pm

By Michael McMullan

ALL-IRELAND junior champions Antrim go in search of more silverware this weekend with a fresh face in the opposition corner after Leitrim saw off the Saffrons’ Ulster rivals Fermanagh to book a spot in Sunday’s league decider.

In recent times, anytime Antrim headed for the business end it was Fermanagh who met them head on.

Leitrim led the Erne girls by three points in extra time, and Blaithin Bogue’s point wasn’t enough to save the Ulster side from a 1-12 to 1-10 defeat.

“It is fresher and we don’t know what Leitrim are going to bring and that brings its own challenges in itself. We just want to win and to beat whoever is put in front of us,” said Antrim captain Cathy Carey and the recent Ulster Championship launch.

Getting out of Division Four is a target after moving up the championship ladder after their All-Ireland Junior replay win over Fermanagh last year.

“It was massive and has been a target since 2012 to get back and to win it,” Carey said. “It has given the county a massive lift with the media coverage for the kids and they are all dying to go to matches now.”

Standing in the spacious hall at Armagh’s Palace Stables, the Moneyglass and Antrim star speaks with calmness.

With almost three weeks to prepare for Sunday’s showdown, there is a chance to ease off before getting revved back up again.

As fulcrum of the Antrim attack for the entirety of her career, Carey is well-placed to reflect on the past and there the county needs to get to.

The county’s social media channels churning out of all things Ladies football is matched with the enthusiasm manager Emma Kelly radiates.

“I played with Emma,” Carey said. “She is mad about Ladies football and mad about trying to progress the game in Antrim. To have somebody like that who is invested in it, you need that and all the way across the board.”

The county’s underage structures are improving. Clubs are popping up and Carey hopes the short-term enthusiasm snowballs. An uphill trajectory over the next decade is where ambition rests.

Leitrim is now. The Ulster Championship is next. The big picture beyond is the All-Ireland series at intermediate level.

The management team of Kelly and Kayla Treanor have made a difference in the recent past. The continuity and success has filtered into the playing side of things.

“We have kept the majority of our panel,” Carey said of one of the plus points this season. “It’s probably easier because the girls are used to each other and we got back into training before Christmas.”

The step up later in the year demanded more focus on strength and conditioning.

“It is even the gap between your last National League game and the first game in Ulster, girls would’ve fell away at that point so you were maybe bringing more girls in,” Carey said of the greater stability now. When you’re in, you’re in.

It will get another boost this weekend if they are able to finish the job against Leitrim on Sunday. For Carey, their lay-off was all about building up the momentum again.

What does the road after Sunday look like for Antrim? The answer is as simple as it is obvious. It’s about pushing as hard as they can possibly push. They can’t run away, they#ve invested too much. Carey wants Antrim to keep looking up.

“We wanted to get here so it is up to us to pit ourselves against better teams and work hard,” she said.

“We have to go out with the attitude of trying to win games and not worrying about the fact that we are up a grade.

“We will take it a game at a time and see how we get on with the Intermediate Championship. The main thing would be try and win whatever games are in front of us and make sure we stay up intermediate and if we win it, we win it…happy days.”

Staying up has to be Antrim’s championship bread and butter. They need the days out against different teams and stepping out of their comfort zone. It will bring more games.

“The county needs it and the underage needs it so they see themselves as playing the teams at intermediate level and hopefully senior football is somewhere closer than we ever thought it would be,” Carey said.

Now we have it, a leader who is thinking of where the county needs to get to. Welcome to planet ambition.

“I am the oldest by a fair wee bit and there are a few in between,” Carey said, before lifting the lid on what the next generation bring.

“The youth, they push you on and they add that bit of fearlessness and haven’t been through what the older players have been through, some really tough years.

“They are coming in fresh and enthusiastic to play football and that makes us want to push on a bit more

“You need those players coming in year in and year out because there is always going to be a handful of older players and it adds a competitive side to it.”

Moneyglass pushed Donaghmoyne all the way on Ulster senior final day. It was nearly the perfect end to a year that saw them annex every title possible to win at all ages.

It was like St Paul’s before them, Carey offers. She speakso of a club scene that feeds into the county’s ambition

“The more players you can get out the better, it increases the standard all around,” she said, looking back on the excitement last summer’s county run generated.

Clubs booking buses for games, lit up by colour and energy. When the victory cavalcade finished up in Glenravel, the All-Ireland magic was still in the air. Photos and autographs were the order of the day.

“It is great to see so many girls playing football for the county and they are great role models for girls in the club, they are hard to beat to have female role models for girls rather than just men,” Carey concluded.

A title on Sunday would help, but Leitrim will have other ideas. Two into one doesn’t go and Antrim till be hoping to squeeze through to Division Three. It would be another mark of progress.

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