McAleese determined to take Croker opportunity


Antrim v Meath

Sunday, Croke Park, 2pm (LIVE ON RTÉ)

By Niall Gartland

ANTRIM vice-captain Dermot McAleese says there’s ‘nowhere else in the world’ he’d rather be than in Croke Park this Sunday for their Tailteann Cup semi-final against Meath.

Their campaign to date has been a roaring success – four wins on the trot in championship football, you can’t ask for better than that, and they’ve been duly awarded with a place in Croke Park with the game broadcast live on RTÉ 2.

McAleese is relieved that he’ll even be able to participate at all. He was taken off after only eight minutes of play in their quarter-final clash against Carlow last weekend following an accidental collision which left him unable to see out of one eye for three or four hours. Thankfully he’s good as gold now, and he’s looking forward to running out on Croke Park for only the second time in his career.

“I came on when we played Louth in a league final back in 2016, we were beaten that day. It’s not too often Antrim get to Croke Park, so that was one of our goals at the start of the year, whether it was via the league or Tailteann Cup. We’re delighted to get there and we want to make the most of our opportunity.”

It’s not just the players who are relishing the prospect of playing at the Jones Road venue. Antrim supporters, particularly those of the footballing persuasion, don’t get too many big days out like this so they’ll be preparing to make the trip down the road as well. McAleese acknowledges that the Tailteann Cup, now in its second year, has been taken seriously by the GAA, which perhaps wasn’t the case with previous ‘B’ competitions like the Tommy Murphy Cup.

“To be fair to the GAA they have marketed it well. The semis are on TV, the big games are in Croke Park, there’s a team holiday for the winners. It’s a competition that you want to be involved in.

“There’s not many times we’ve played in Croke Park down the years so it gives our young supporters a chance to come down and support their team in an All-Ireland semi-final and hopefully it’ll inspire them going forward.

“In previous years we’d maybe be knocked out of a Division One team in the quarter-finals and that would be our season over. In my opinion the Tailteann Cup has been a brilliant competition.”

It’s only this year that a group stage was introduced to the Tailteann Cup. Antrim won all three of their matches before claiming a hard-fought win over Carlow in the quarters, so the format has permitted them to pick up a bit of momentum.

McAleese said: “We were obviously very disappointed after the Armagh defeat in Ulster but we’ve managed to regroup. Fair play to the lads, they’ve put in two months of real solid work. We took a lot of learnings from the Armagh game, Andy [McEntee] must have used nearly every man on the panel during the Tailteann Cup as we’ve had our fair share of injuries. We’ve now got the carrot of Croke Park, nothing beats confidence like winning and we’ve won a few games at this stage.”

Asked about the role played in all this by their manager Andy McEntee, who will be up against his native Meath this Sunday, McAleese highlights the fact that they’ve become a gritter team under his watch.

“Andy has been a fresh face and voice. He and his management team have backed every single one of our boys. They’ve instilled confidence in us and added a bit of grit to us over the course of the year. We’ve had a few sticky patches in the Tailteann Cup but we’ve managed to ride through those patches whereas in the league we were maybe crumbling a bit. He’s managed to galvanise us in that regard. Andy’s been brilliant as have the rest of the management team.”

The Saffrons have also shown that there’s talent coming through the ranks with Dominic McEnhill, to cite just one example, scoring 11 points last weekend against Carlow. He’s not the only young player who’s taken his chance with a few marquee names like Ryan Murray and Paddy McAleer sidelined with injury.

“We’ve been nagged with injuries all year. Paddy has been injured all season but he’s still been a brilliant presence. We’ve had to dig deep into the panel, younger players have all stepped up in various stages of matches which is important when you’re playing games week after week. We’ve lads who weren’t getting much game time at the start of the year but they’ve bided their time and they’re getting their chance now.”

McAleese is also expecting a stiff challenge from Colm O’Rourke’s Meath, who seem to be improving with every game.

“Like ourselves they’ve used the Tailteann Cup well and have picked up a bit of momentum, it’ll be a massive challenge for us. They’ve a really good forward line, it’s a challenge but we’re really looking forward to it. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be this Sunday than playing in Croke Park and really testing ourselves against a strong Meath side.”

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