Allianz Football League Division Three

Antrim v Down (Corrigan Park, Sunday, 2pm)

IF one wished to find a snapshot of the 2023 season for Antrim’s footballers, a chilly February night in Newry would be the best place to start.

Leading by five points with as many minutes of normal time remaining in their Division Three game against Down having performed superbly, it seemed Andy McEntee’s side was about to bank a seismic win to kick-start their promotion push.

But not for the last time in the campaign, they would come away empty handed, stunned by a late revival by the Mournemen who found another gear down the stretch that was aided by a Conor Poland goal.

An identical fate awaited in a home game against Fermanagh just weeks later as the pre-campaign aspirations of promotion became a nervous look over the shoulder to remain in the third tier.

They managed just that thanks to staving off yet another late rally from the opposition, this time Cavan, in mid-March that suggested a corner had been turned.

If further evidence is required, then Antrim’s two games thus far in the League have proven they are not burdened by the heartbreaks of the past as in the opener against Limerick, they built a healthy lead only to see it whittled down to the minimum, but would kick on for a seven-point win.

A fortnight ago, again they looked in a commanding position against Offaly, but were forced to hang on, yet hang on they did and now they head into Sunday’s rematch with their neighbours to the south with two wins from two.

Down are in a similar position having accounted for Wicklow and Limerick in impressive fashion, so it sets up this week’s meeting between the pair nicely.

“The game we played against them last year was probably the best game we played all year as a spectacle,” McEntee reflected after that win over Offaly.

“We didn’t come out the right side of it, but then today was probably one of the worst and we did come out the right side of it.

“Both teams are on full points, so this will have a big bearing on what the table will look like at the end of it all.

“It couldn’t be any better (of a start). We’ve four (points) on the board and still haven’t put a full performance together yet.”

If the above isn’t sufficient to build up this Ulster derby, then throw in the fact they are to rematch in the quarter-final of the Ulster Senior Football Championship in April.

That game should not have much of a bearing on this week as the League is high on the priority list for both teams as promotion into Division Two is not just desirable in terms of playing at a higher level, but it is also quite possible that it will be the difference between playing in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship or Tailteann Cup later in summer.

Both teams enjoyed a long run in the latter last year, only for Meath to have the measure of both as Antrim fell at the semi-final stage and Down came up short to The Royals in the final.

The momentum of last year appears to have carried into 2024 and therefore, maintaining that could well be pivotal in terms of how the rest of the League campaign can play out.

Odhran Murdock, Daniel Guinness and Pat Havern have been showing well for Conor Laverty’s side so far, whilst the return of Caolan Mooney is another huge boost to the Mournemen this year.

As for Antrim, the injuries have been stacking up with a lengthy list of absentees including Adam Loughran, Stephen Beatty, Eoghan McCabe, Conor Stewart, Ryan Murray and Patrick Finnegan to name a few.

Cormac McGettigan hobbled out against Offaly and the Rossa man is one of several players to have pushed on this year, with Niall Burns of St Gall’s, Kavan Keenan and Eoin Hynds also breaking through, while Aghagallon’s Eunan Walsh has made a big impact at full-back.

Conor Hand will certainly not be available this week due to the red card he picked up against Offaly and McEntee does not expect many, if any, of the walking wounded to return this week.

“Probably not,” he admitted.

“Big Ruairi (McCann) looks like a longer term injury, Peter Healy is still on his way back and Cathal Hynds also looks like a longer-term injury. 

“That’s why you have a panel. The fellas we’ve brought in have done their job.”