Allianz Hurling League Division One, Group B
Antrim v Wexford (Saturday, 3pm, Corrigan Park, live on TG4)
ANTRIM are sweating on the fitness of both Michael Bradley and Conor McCann ahead of Saturday’s Division One showdown with Wexford at Corrigan Park.
A win this weekend would move the Saffrons a step closer to retaining their place in the top flight ahead of another home game against Laois on Saturday week.
Antrim claimed a hard-fought 1-21 to 0-22 over Clare at the Whiterock Road venue in their opening contest before falling to back-to-back defeats on the road against Kilkenny and Dublin.
Antrim boss Darren Gleeson opted against playing his skipper McCann against Dublin in Parnell Park while Bradley was forced to retire from the game midway through the second half after shipping a heavy challenge.
Gleeson confirmed that Bradley suffered concussion in the tackle and is following return to play protocols and fears Saturday’s game may come too soon for the St John’s midfielder.
“Michael (Bradley) took a bad concussion against Dublin and he hasn’t returned to training,” said Gleeson.
“He is unlikely to see any game time this weekend – he is following the return to play protocols.
“He might be alright to go, but you have to keep the player in the mind because he took a hard knock that day.
“We are waiting to see how Conor McCann is in training this week. We have a few other knocks and niggles, but nothing to keep anyone else out.
“I’d say Michael Bradley and Conor McCann are the two big concerns at this moment in time, they are two big players for us, but that’s why they squad is there.
“Hopefully, other lads can come in and put in a shift.”
Last Friday night’s Conor McGurk Cup final victory over Down afforded Gleeson the opportunity to run the eye of his extended panel.
Several players put their names in the frame for starting berths against Wexford and Laois.
Eoin O’Neill turned in a Man-of-the-Match display while the likes of Shea Shannon, Conor Johnston and Ryan McCambridge also impressed.
With the short pre-season and rapid run of fixtures over a six-week period, Gleeson knows squad depth will play a big part in determining if Antrim can avoid the relegation play-off later this month.
“The response from the boys (since the Dublin defeat) has been excellent,” said Gleeson.
“When you analysis it, we played three massively intense games in 13 days, it wasn’t three weeks – we went Sunday, Sunday, Saturday. That’s a massive ask.
“When you go across the hurling and football leagues across the board, it has taken a lot out of teams.
“We weren’t too down on the lads. We are just trying to refresh them.
“We got the chance to play some of the lads who we hadn’t got the opportunity to see last Friday night in Corrigan Park and it was a good performance against Down.
“It gives us options for the week ahead.”
“Some boys were coming back from injury and some boys were waiting for their opportunity. We’ve eight new squad members and that was the first time to see a lot of them in an Antrim jersey in a competitive fixture.
“Last Friday night was hugely beneficial to see and, hopefully, those boys can keep pushing and see if they can get out on to the field at some stage.”
Last Sunday at Corrigan Park a couple of hundreds spectators were permitted to watch Antrim’s last-gasp victory over Leitrim in the Allianz Football League.
This weekend, it will be the turn of the Antrim hurling faithful and they’ll sure to give last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup heroes a fitting welcome when they take to the pitch on Saturday afternoon.
However, after losing out to a TJ Reid-inspired Kilkenny side last Sunday, Gleeson knows his men must be braced for a blacklash from Wexford.
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“It is great for people to get back to the games and it is great for the players. They’ve been representing Antrim for the last two years and most of the time it has been without their friends and family there to support them. It will be great for the players to have that support around them.
“Corrigan is after getting a nice redevelopment there as well and I’m sure the Antrim public are looking forward to getting in and supporting the team again.
“When the fixtures came out at the start of the year, we always knew the last two games at home would be really important and that’s the way it is going to pan out.
“We made great use of our first home game and we just have to bring the same level of intensity and work that we brought against Clare to the Wexford game.
“That’s all we can do – just look at the one in front of you and not worry too much about what’s coming down the line.”
He added: “Wexford will be a small bit stung after last Sunday, but I wouldn’t massively read into Wexford’s performance.
“They used a lot of players who hadn’t seen much action since Davy (Fitzgerald) came in. “They’ve Kilkenny in their sights in the Leinster Championship – they’ll be hoping to play them in the semi-finals. You never know, maybe Davy was thinking further down the line?”
Antrim go into their penultimate game of the group stages knowing a win may be enough to keep them in Division One, but two wins from two would guarantee it.
The bottom team in Group A and Group B meet to decide who drops down to Division 2A for next season.
Westmeath are winless after three games in Group A are face an uphill battle to avoid the relegation play-off.
The Saffrons will finish bottom if they lose both their final games and Clare pick up at least one more point against Dublin (away) and Kilkenny (home).
If Laois lose to Kilkenny at Nowlan Park on Sunday, but beat Antrim in round five and Antrim and Clare fail to pick up any further points, the trio will be tied on two points.
In that scenario, scoring difference would be used to determine which side finishes bottom.
Gleeson’s men won’t want to leave everything riding on their last game against Laois and will be hoping a return to Corrigan Park can yield a return to winning ways.