By Shaun Casey
JUST three months ago, Antrim travelled to the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds for the opening game of the year as Andy McEntee got his tenure underway against Armagh in the first round of the McKenna Cup.
A massive 4,500 fans gathered in the Cathedral City to watch the Orchard County’s domination over the McEntee’s men and Conor Turbitt’s goal ended the game as a contest as early as the sixth minute.
Even when Kieran McGeeney emptied the bench at half time, using all 30 of his listed panel, the large gap remained and Armagh ran out eventual 2-20 to 2-8 winners, with two Odhran Eastwood goals adding some gloss to Antrim’s final tally.
It was a rough start to McEntee’s stint, and it’s a journey he’ll encounter on Saturday once again. It’s the start of another competition and another shot at Armagh, away from home. From the outset, Antrim will be heavy underdogs.
But there will be an air of confidence and belief bubbling under the surface in the Saffron dressing room. While their league campaign was nothing to write home about, Antrim did enough to ensure that Armagh can’t let their guard down.
The most notable result for Antrim was their win over Division Three champions Cavan – who await the winners of Saturday’s showdown – a result that ended the Breffni side’s unbeaten run of five on the bounce. Antrim should have beaten Down and Fermanagh as well, but the concession of late goals didn’t help their cause.
Conceding goals has been an issue for the Antrim defence this year. In seven league games, their goal has been penetrated 15 times, with only Tipperary failing to breach Michael Byrne’s net.
In the Armagh camp, it’s been quite the opposite. They conceded three goals throughout the league, but it’s been at the other end of the field which has sparked much debate and is perhaps Armagh’s biggest cause for concern.
There’s no such thing as a bad goal, but Armagh’s two three-pointers haven’t exactly come from free-flowing football. There was the goal on the opening night against Monaghan when Rory Beggan’s misplaced kick-out resulted in Tiernan Kelly shooting from a distance – a shot the Scotstown man should have dealt with.
Armagh had to wait until the second last round of the league before raising their second green flag, and it came by way of another gift from an opposition goalkeeper. Galway net-minder Connor Gleeson failed to deal with Ethan Rafferty’s hopeful pass towards the square and the ball ended up in the back of the net.
Goals made all the difference when Armagh and Antrim met in the 2021 championship, in the same venue, with Rory Grugan, Rian O’Neill, Tiernan Kelly and Turbitt all hitting the net for Kieran McGeeney’s side.
But the attacking unit hasn’t been firing properly this year. Armagh seem to have reverted to a defence-minded, safety first, counter-attacking approach that has taken some of the flare out of their noted sharp-shooting forward line.
Plus, question marks remain over the fitness of talisman Rian O’Neill, who didn’t feature against Tyrone in the final round of the league and Andrew Murnin, perhaps Armagh’s best player this year, who pulled up in that same game.
Ben Crealey is on the mend however and the big Maghery midfield will be a welcomed addition to that area of the field, relieving Stefan Campbell from that duty and pushing ‘Soupy’ into his more common spot in the forward line.
The wrestle for possession around the centre of the field will be crucial for both sides. Armagh are still trying to mould a midfield partnership together, while Antrim will feel they have the physical edge in that section.
Antrim had a settled looking midfield for most of the league, with Kevin Small and Conor Stewart keeping vice-like grips on the number eight and nine jerseys. But in the last two rounds, against Cavan and Longford, Colm McLarnon and Jack Dowling started at midfield.
It’s not just in the middle where Antrim are physically imposing. Up front, Ruairi McCann, the Aghagallon version, is an old-fashioned target man who has a keen eye for goal when provided with enough ammunition.
Odhran Eastwood and Pat Shivers are other attacking threats, with Ryan Murray and Dominic McEnhill making up the supporting cast. If Antrim can get their hands on enough ball, they have the forward line that can trouble Armagh.
But Armagh’s defensive screen, no matter how much it has taken away from their threat going forward, has been a success. It’s a rear-guard that has kept David Clifford and Shane Walsh scoreless from play, with Barry McCambridge stepping up as their number one man-marker.
It’ll be no walk in the park for the hosts, but Armagh should have enough to see this out, even without the influence of O’Neill and Murnin. The exposure to Division One football will stand to them, and if they can get their forward line ticking, they’ll proceed to the last eight with a bit to spare.
Armagh 2-20 Antrim 2-8
Antrim 0-9 Cavan 2-10
Antrim 0-12 Offaly 2-12
Down 2-18 Antrim 2-17
Antrim 1-19 Tipperary 0-13
Antrim 3-9 Fermanagh 2-13
Westmeath 4-27 Antrim 0-8
Antrim 1-17 Cavan 2-12
Longford 3-17 Antrim
Odhran Eastwood 3-13 (5f)
Dominic McEnhill 0-17 (8f, 2m)
Ruairi McCann (Creggan) 1-12 (2f, 1m, 1 45)
Ruairi McCann (Aghagallon) 3-6 (1m)
Pat Shivers 0-13 (3f)
Cavan 1-14 Armagh
Armagh 2-20 Antrim 2-8
Armagh 1-14 Monaghan 1-12
Armagh 0-17 Mayo 0-17
Roscommon 1-12 Armagh 0-12
Kerry 0-12 Armagh 0-11
Armagh 0-13 Donegal 0-10
Armagh 1-6 Galway 1-6
Tyrone 0-18 Armagh 0-16
Rian O’Neill 0-25 (14f, 3m, 2 45)
Conor Turbitt 1-12 (2f, 2m)
Rory Grugan 0-12 (8f)
Stefan Campbell 0-11
Andrew Murnin 0-8 (1m)
Aidan Nugent 0-8 (3f)