Keeping the head down

Dermot McAleese missed six games in the middle of last season but is back in full flow and hoping for a complete Antrim performance on Saturday in Newry. He spoke with Michael McMullan

DERMOT McAleese has always been the same. Quiet and modest off the pitch. Inside the whitewash, he is always front and centre.

Among the Portglenone group to burst through from underage to backbone their elevation back to the cutting edge at senior level, he was their hub.

Much of it was in an attacking sense that, like is now the case in many teams, makes him the ideal wing-back.

He has started every game for Andy McEntee this season after sitting out the McKenna Cup experimentation in January.

It’s a change from last year. Six minutes into their league game with Down in Páirc Esler, a broken jaw saw McAleese forced off.

It was the same February evening Down lost Barry O’Hagan to a knee injury early in the second half.

Antrim will never full fathom how they lost that game. Conor Poland’s goal tied the score as the clock ticked into stoppage time.

The Saffron camp have spoken of that game, but not too much. Along with their defeat to Fermanagh last season, that 2-18 to 2-17 Newry shoot-out can be filed away. There needed to be learnings.

“By all accounts we had played a lot of the football,” McAleese said of the classic he missed with injury.

“I think it was probably one of our best performances last year, and I think it was just game management in the end, a couple of wee slips late on.”

Tapping into that game, their Fermanagh defeat and the failure to finish Offaly off was all about learning to close out games.

McAleese feels it was the helping hand in a Tailteann Cup campaign that took them to Croke Park.

McAleese marked his comeback in a full game against Leitrim at the start of the Tailteann Cup. He is thankful. In other years, his county season would’ve been over.

Getting confidence back, after having a jaw wired, is the difficult part. Game by game, it’s about getting back into the groove.

“Once you’ve taken your first hit or your first knock on it, it’s like any other injury, you kind of forget about it,” he said.

He is enjoying his football again. With every game comes more sharpness, game awareness. They’re the real gains.

“It’s games that bring you on the most,” he said. “To get the seven (league) games under the belt will hopefully stand to me for the summer of football.”

The early, midday, win over Limerick on a wet Sunday in Askeaton and victory over Offaly gave Antrim a chance to approach a promotion chase.

It didn’t materialise. Their lengthening injury list did Antrim no favours. Defeats to leading lights Down, Westmeath and Sligo left the Saffron season resting on a trip to Clare and the visit of Wicklow. The drop to Division Four would’ve been unthinkable.

“It’s a very tough place to get out of, as we know,” McAleese said.

Speaking before Wicklow’s win over Westmeath on Sunday adding more context into the complexities of Division Three, McAleese felt there was added value to Antrim’s win over Wicklow.

It was the final day of the league. The Saffrons had to avoid defeat. In their eyes, it was a championship environment before the championship.

“That’s the thing, that was nearly, nearly beneficial to us in a way,” he explained. “Instead of going in and playing a dead rubber against Wicklow, you’ve got another, another real good championship-like match under your belt, to prepare you for Down.”

On the flip side, Antrim are expecting a kickback from Down. Their Croke Park loss to Westmeath simply has to hurt.

If their 2023 Páirc Esler defeat was the one that got away, the league meeting of the teams this season was totally different.

Paddy McAleer’s goal put a gloss on a first half that saw Michael Byrne’s save from Caolan Mooney as one of the instances when Down overran Antrim on the counter.

As a player who plays in the transition zone, McAleese knows too well how it works.

A Byrne free after half-time levelled matters, 1-5 to 0-8, before Down got a grip of the game and ran Antrim ragged.

“Without being spectacular, we were well in the game,” McAleese recalls. They had done enough in limiting Down opportunities. Kicks were pressured and it was working.

“I suppose we did sort of tail off in that second half. They’ve got plenty of runners and legs.”

While knowing the importance of stopping Down’s running game, McAleese is aware of what they themselves can bring.

“We have boys as well on our team with a bit of pace, like Paddy McBride and ‘Jordy’ (Marc Jordan),” he said.

“I think we’ve enough to trouble them on our own, going the other way as well, but no doubt they’ll (Down) take a bit of watching.

“They’re going very well, and probably will be disappointed with their showing in Croke Park (against Westmeath) so, no doubt, they’ll be raring to go, to put that right, just like we’ll be.”

Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann was back in the fold. After scoring eight goals last season, he marked his return against Wicklow with the clinching goal but illness forces him out this weekend. Cathal Hynes is back in after settling in well last season.

The Saffron injury list is significant. They’ve had to plan without key men on a weekly basis. But they’ll have to park that.

For McAleese, Antrim have played in fits and starts. That’s what Saturday’s target is centred on.

“I don’t think we’ve ever put in a proper full 70-minute performance this year,” he summed up.

“That’s something that’s really on our mind, is getting a full 70 minutes of good football, to go and do ourselves justice.”

McAleese had just six minutes on the Páirc Esler sod in Antrim’s last outing. In the absence of Peter Healy, he has captained the team this season.

If Antrim are to book a semi-final spot and repeat the dose of 2000, the county’s last championship win over Down, McAleese will have to keep his head down and drive them forward.

A quiet man off the pitch, yet the beating heart on it.

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