Joe McDonagh Cup: Antrim v Westmeath
(Corrigan Park, Sunday, 2pm, live on BEOsport)
IT'S been one heck of a week for Antrim hurling on and off the field with promotion to Division One secured last Sunday before an outbreak of Covid-19 hit the squad in the aftermath.
The upshot is they will be a number of players light when they take on Westmeath tomorrow in their opening Joe McDonagh Cup fixture at Corrigan Park.
It emerged on Tuesday that one player had tested positive with three players who were in close contact tested, leading to two positive and one negative results, although the player who tested negative is still required to isolate.
With all of the remaining members of the team tested since, it brought up a further two players and one member of the backroom team who were positive and are also out of tomorrow's game.
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Despite these setbacks, the Saffrons will plough on and hope to build upon their victory over Kerry last week that suggested no momentum had been lost over the lockdown period.
They will face a step-up in opposition against the Lake County's hurlers who plied their trade in the top flight in the League and secured their place there for another season when defeating Carlow in a relegation playoff.
Antrim wins over Westmeath have been few and far between in recent times and outside of a victory in the 2017 Walsh Cup, they have to go all the way back to the 2014 Leinster Round Robin series for their last win in either League or Championship.
Last year, the Saffrons had high hopes of reaching the McDonagh final when they took on Sunday's opposition in Dunloy, but fell to a convincing 0-29 to 0-21 defeat, with the 2018 meeting between the teams in the same competition also going to Westmeath who squeaked home by two points in a thriller at Cusack Park.
Whilst Shane O'Brien's side has lost the services of sharpshooter Killian Doyle who took up a teaching post in London, they been boosted by Davy Glennon declaring for the county, but it appears he will be ineligible for this game as his transfer has not been processed in time.
The 29-year-old was a member of the Galway panel that won the 2017 All-Ireland and having been made surplus to requirements for The Tribesmen this year, switched to Westmeath under the parentage rule.
Add in the return of Niall O'Brien who had been working in Dubai, Westmeath appear to be stronger again with regulars in Robbie Greville, Derek McNicholas, Aonghus Clarke and Joey Boyle still leading the charge.
It will therefore take another huge performance from Antrim if they want to continue their unbeaten run this year and manager Darren Gleeson is expecting a close examination of his side's credentials in what looks their toughest assignment this year to date.
"They have been good and really stepped it up," he said of Westmeath, following Antrim's win over Kerry on Sunday.
"They have a couple of additions this year with Davy Glennon a serious player coming in there. Davy actually played against us above in Abbotstown in a challenge match earlier in the year for Galway.
"Niall O'Brien is back as well, so they will be a fair challenge. But look, they're coming up to Belfast and we will be in good spirits going in.
"We'll be down three or four by the looks of the injuries but we have a squad and there were three or four who didn't get to tog today and they weren't happy boys about that."
On top of those sidelined with Covid-19, Antrim have some injury concerns and those who are most in danger of missing out are Neil McManus and Keelan Molloy who both hobbled out of the win against Kerry on Sunday with suspected hamstring strains.
Both are key figures but the fact that McManus left the field just minutes in last Sunday and Antrim managed to still claim the win without their talisman will offer great hope as younger players stood up and carried the fight in the Cushendall man's absence.
"We are the walking wounded going into the Joe McDonagh," Gleeson admitted.
"Domhnall Nugent came in there and gave us a great shift in the half-forward line.
"Neil was a massive loss as he his he free-taker as well, but we had others who stepped up."
The Portroe man has been clocking up the miles over the last couple of years to help guide the Saffrons - last year as a coach and as manager this year - but says those long journeys north and back to North West Tipperary have been enjoyable.
His first goal this year was to secure League promotion and on Sunday, his team fulfilled that ambition.
Should he guide his adopted county to McDonagh Cup success and back into the MacCarthy Cup for 2021, it will complete a remarkable year and upturn in fortunes for Antrim hurling who have been away from the top table since suffering relegation to the Christy Ring Cup in 2015.
A win on Sunday will be another major step forward and with the final due to be played as a curtain raiser to the Liam MacCarthy final at Croke Park in December, the incentive is there for his team who he hopes has now got a taste for success.
"I love the time on the field with the boys," he confirmed.
"I love the journey up when we are going to train with them and then digest it on the way home. People might say: 'ah, it's a long journey', but it gives me time to think and figure out what's going on.
"There is no manager who has enjoyed the last three or four months of organising what we have to do and trying to keep the spirits of your players and backroom team high. That's been really difficult - it's been draining - but it's worth it when you see the joy that those boys have today."