Antrim NFL Preview: Tricky fixtures are manageable

ANTRIM’S task of gaining promotion is perhaps trickier than it might have been had the league been played off in the normal format. But it is certainly not beyond them. Their opponents in Division Four North are Sligo, Leitrim and Louth.

Leitrim and Louth are the two teams that were relegated from Division Three last year, which might be a tad frustrating for Saffrons who had hoped to get an easier run. Furthermore, Sligo were one of the two teams that beat Antrim in last year’s league.

However, Antrim did miss some big chances in that game and should have won the match. In 2019, Leitrim only beat Antrim by a point in Division Four. Finally, for anyone needing a positive spin on the Louth game, they only need to reference Antrim’s Qualifier victory over the Wee county in June 2019. So plenty for the new management and players to be positive about.

Strong Saffrons 

THERE is an argument to be made that had Antrim had a full strength team from the start of last year, they might be playing in Division Three this year.

At the start of the year, Martin Johnston, Dermot McAleese, and Paddy Cunningham were just a few of the names on Lenny Harbinson’s team who were working their way back to full fitness. This year, however, with a new management in place and six months of rest time for their squad, Antrim will have no excuses if they don’t perform. With the experience of Tomas and Mick McCann, and Paddy Cunningham still there, alongside leaders such as Declan Lynch, Ricky Johnston and Niall Delargy, Antrim should be in very good shape. Martin Johnston is not part of the team this year though, but another name that could appear is Niall McKeever. The Portglenone man spent four years in Australia playing AFL, and last played for two years ago. Enda McGinley’s panel has not been confirmed but Gaelic Life understands that McKeever may play some part.

Star management 

ENDA McGinley and Stephen O’Neill’s arrival as the new Antrim management has sparked great excitement among the players.

Players who might have retired after last year’s frustrating season have stayed on. Other players have returned to the fold. McGinley was managing Swatragh last season, while Stephen O’Neill was over Dungiven, St Canice’s footballers. Dungiven lost to the Loup in the first round, while Swatragh lost to Magherafelt in the quarter-finals. But it is not their form as club managers that has excited Antrim fans, it is their records as county footballers.

They were exemplars on the Tyrone teams of the noughties, and Saffrons hope that that experience will rub off on the intercounty team. Ably assisted by Sean Kelly, who has respect throughout Antrim, this management team have the potential to get promotion, particularly when you consider that they really were only one result away from getting up to Division Three last year.

The potential is there and it will be a great surprise if they don’t deliver.

Surprise defeat 

LENNY Harbinson’s third term in charge should have delivered promotion out of Division Four. That was the goal that everyone expected.

They had had hard luck stories in the two years previous, and the feeling was that the team had the quality to put those seasons behind them. During the season, Tomas McCann returned to the team, as did brother Michael and Paddy Cunningham, and so too did Martin Johnston and Dermot McAleese.

Before their opening game last year, Ricky Johnston told Gaelic Life that he felt that the defence had been getting better as a unit, and he felt very positive about their season. They backed that up with an opening round win over Wexford, 3-10 to 0-13 in Glenavy.

Johnston would have been pleased that no goals were conceded in that game. Antrim manager Harbinson was not pleased however, and he told the reporters after the game that he was frustrated by his team’s wastefulness.

It was a prescient comment. A week later they would lose to Sligo by a single point.

That wastefulness had caught up with them as they missed two goals chances in the first half. Antrim captain Declan Lynch told Gaelic Life after that defeat that all was not lost though and their destiny was in their own hands.

In round three they beat London in Ruislip, and that settled the nerves. Then came a meeting with Carlow who had lost two of their three games played.

Turlough O’Brien favours a cautious, defensive-style of football, and their counter attack had Antrim trailing by six points. Harbinson’s team fought back to draw level, but they couldn’t get the win.

All was not lost though, as they were just one point behind second place Wexford. Yet in round five they were paired with the league leaders Limerick. If ever there was a game to set down a marker it was this, and so they did with a huge 2-21 to 1-12 victory. Odhran Eastwood stood out with a tally of 2-3.

Beating the league leaders in such a manner, proved that Lenny Harbinson’s Antrim team were good enough to gain promotion. And with Wexford losing to Sligo, it meant that Antrim were in a promotion spot going into their final two games.

However, at that crucial juncture Covid-19 struck, and the league was put on hold. The league returned in mid October and Antrim were due to travel to play a Wicklow team who had won three of their five games played, though those games had came against teams in the bottom half of the division.

Yet Wicklow pulled off a superb win, stunning Antrim by 7-11 to 0-7, and that defeat ended Antrim’s league season.

They won their final game, but so did Limerick and Wicklow who were promoted. A heartbreaking finish to Antrim’s season. The temptation for Saffrons will be to say that had they played Wicklow immediately af ter the Limerick game then momentum would have helped them get that final crucial win. But it wasn’t to be.

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