ANTRIM’S footballers begin their 2022 season with a trip to Páirc Esler on Tuesday night (8.15pm) as they face Down in their Dr McKenna Cup opener.

The Saffrons have been paired with the Mournemen and Donegal in Section A of the pre-season competition alongside Donegal who won the opening game of the group against Down on Friday.

Antrim will then welcome Donegal to Portglenone on Saturday, January 15 with the top side in each section qualifying for the semi-finals along with the best runner-up.

Antrim manager Enda McGinley didn’t have the benefit of the McKenna Cup during his first year in charge in 2021 and a truncated Allianz League didn’t do the new management team any favours either.

Despite that, the Saffrons managed to secure promotion from Division Four with a semi-final win over Waterford in Dungarvan last June before losing out to Armagh in the first round of the Ulster Senior Football Championship.

Antrim begin their Division Three campaign against Fermanagh in Brewster Park on Saturday, January 29, and will have four home games against Limerick, Wicklow, Longford and Westmeath.

Naomh Éanna stalwart Peter Healy will once again captain Antrim in 2022 while Creggan’s Jamie McCann is among those who have linked up with the Saffron squad following an excellent club campaign.

His Kickhams colleague Marty Johnston is understood to have rejoined the panel as has Cargin’s Jamie Gribbin.Veteran attacker Paddy Cunningham confirmed his retirement from inter-county football last year while Portglenone’s Niall McKeever and Niall Delargy have stepped away from the panel along with Aghagallon forward Adam Loughran.

Down boss James McCartan will be without the services of their Kilcoo contingent as the Magpies prepare to face Derrygonnelly in the Ulster Club SFC final on Sunday, January 16.

Carryduff’s James Guinness and Owen McCabe are also currently unavailable as are Burren duo Gerard McGovern and Donal O’Hare.

McCartan, who was eventually named as Paddy Tally’s successor back in November, has drafted in a host Down’s Ulster U20 Championship winning side from last season including Charlie Smith, Odhran Murdock, Andrew Gilmore and Tom Close.