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Antrim face tough challenge to overcome Red Hands

Antrim’s Ryan Murray gets away from Tyrone defender Brendan Burns during the Dr McKenna Cup clash between the sides at the Athletic Grounds in January of last year. The sides return to Armagh for Saturday evening’s Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final Antrim’s Ryan Murray gets away from Tyrone defender Brendan Burns during the Dr McKenna Cup clash between the sides at the Athletic Grounds in January of last year. The sides return to Armagh for Saturday evening’s Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final
By Paddy Tierney

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final
Antrim v Tyrone (Saturday, 6pm Athletic Grounds, Live on BBC2)

IF ever Antrim needed a timely boost ahead of their daunting clash against Tyrone, then Cavan provided it against Monaghan last Saturday at Kingspan Breffni Park.

Monaghan were odds on favourites to progress, but Mickey Graham’s men prepared for an ambush and a powerful, physical display saw them overcome the Farneymen by six points.

If that was an upset, finding a superlative fitting to describe an Antrim victory over Tyrone would be rather difficult. Put simply, the Saffrons need to pull off one of the biggest shocks in the history of Gaelic football.

The bookies rate them as 20/1 shots while Tyrone are unbackable at 1/80. The handicap margin has been set at 12 points and most observers feel Antrim would do well to keep the defeat to single figures.

After his side failed to gain promotion from Division Four for the second year running, Antrim boss Lenny Harbinson understands why his side are being written off even before throw-in.

“We can’t control how other people think, whether is it bookies or the media,” said Harbinson.

“They are more than entitled to their opinion. To a certain degree, being realistic, you can understand it. You are looking at a Division One team against a Division Four team. I’ve no issues with it.

“From our own side, what we can control and what we have been doing is making sure we are well prepared fitness wise, structurally and making sure everybody knows what we are about within the camp.

“The players have been working hard and are taking a lot of information on board. That’s all you can do, try to get your own house in order and make yourself as competitive as possible and see where it takes us.”

Harbinson was an interested onlooker when the Red Hands defeated Derry by six points in their Ulster Senior Football Championship preliminary round clash in Healy Park earlier this month.

The Red Hands bossed the majority of the contest with Cathal McShane hitting 0-7, including five from play in an impressive showing.

Yet, Tyrone were forced to dig deep in the closing stages after Shane McGuigan’s goal edged Derry ahead before Darren McCurry’s major steadied the ship.

Mickey Harte’s men pulled clear in the closing stages, but many of their key men failed to fire.

“In fairness to Derry, they had their homework well done and they had themselves well set up,” said Harbinson.

“They had identified key people and got their markers aligned. They stuck to their game plan and they competed pretty well right up until the last 12 minutes or so. A lack of concentration and a mistake allowed Tyrone to get in for a goal and it gave them a massive injection of pace and enthusiasm.

“We’d anticipate Cathal McShane playing at full-forward and, at times, we’d expect Matty Donnelly to go in with him and for them to rotate. When you play against quality opposition like Tyrone, they’ve strength-in-depth so it impossible to man-mark everybody and take out all their key players.

“That’s way the Tyrones and Dublins and Kerry are so forceful because they quality they bring off the bench always gives them an extra dimension. That’s the challenge ahead.”

Harbinson also refuted the notion that Tyrone’s midfield is an area they will target after Derry duo Padraig Cassidy and Conor McAtamney won the midfield battle in Omagh.

The Antrim boss has had to chop and change his own midfield and indeed much of his starting 15 since last year’s Ulster Senior Football Championship defeat to Down in Páirc Esler.

Midfielders Paddy McAleer and Niall McKeever are no longer part of the squad while six other starters in Newry have also departed the panel.

Goalkeeper Padraig Nugent is line to make his Championship debut along with Naomh Éanna’s James McAuley and Lámh Dhearg’s Kevin Quinn while Creggan’s Fintan Burke is also pushing for a starting berth.

Should the Saffrons attempt to copy Derry’s spoiling tactics on Harte and Sludden, McAuley and Niall Delargy could be the ones handed the roles while the physically imposing duo of McShane and Donnelly are likely to be picked up by Ricky Johnston and Antrim captain Declan Lynch.

Pádraig Hampsey didn’t look comfortable in the first half of the Derry game when deployed as a sweeper and the All-Star defender will probably be given a man-marking role, probably picking up Ryan Murray.

The positioning of Matthew Fitzpatrick could test the Tyrone rearguard, especially if the St John’s ace rocks up at full-forward at any point during the game.

Even if the Saffrons edge their 50-50 battles on Saturday evening, there is one area where Tyrone are streets ahead of most of their Ulster rivals and that’s the quality coming off their bench.

Antrim are on a seven game losing streak in Championship football and it is hard to see that coming to an end in Armagh on Saturday night.

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