Tailteann Cup Group Four
Antrim v Leitrim (Corrigan Park, Sunday, 1pm)
THIS time last year, nobody really knew what to make of the newly-fangled Tailteann Cup.

Was it merely a rebranded and rebooted Tommy Murphy Cup that dwindled into the wilderness in the late 2000s? Would the players buy into it or would it simply signal the traditional exodus to the USA for the summer for those from low-ranked counties?

It certainly took a while to warm up, but by its conclusion, the competition was deemed a success and the scenes in Mullingar after Westmeath’s win over Cavan in the final told its own story as it was clear what winning the second tier championship meant to players and fans alike.

So we are back and this time those doubts that existed 12 months ago have largely gone.

This time, instead of last year’s straight knockout format, it is four groups of four with the top team through to the last eight, while the second-place teams and three best third-place finishes reach preliminary quarter-finals with New York entering the fray at that stage.

Like last year, Antrim will face Leitrim (who lost to New York in the Connacht Championship) in the opening game, but they will hope Sunday’s group opener at Corrigan Park goes a lot better than last season’s defeat in Carrick-on-Shannon that saw their season end there and then.

Regardless of the outcome this week, there will be an away trip to Wexford and then Fermanagh at a neutral venue, but getting off to a good start on home soil is key for the Saffrons who want to make a good charge last the competition this year.

“They beat us down there last year, but it’s a bit of a different feeling this time,” said Antrim’s Patrick McBride.

“Last year was the first time it (Tailteann Cup) was played and it was nearly straight after the Cavan game (in Ulster) where there was a bit of deflation. We were nearly thinking if we wanted to play in it.

“But this time, it’s structured a lot better and we’re aware that we are where we deserve to be. At the start of the year, you were told that Division Three or Four teams will be in the Tailteann unless you get to your provincial final.

“If you want to argue you shouldn’t be there, then it’s up to you to get promoted or get to that final.

“The first match against Leitrim here (Corrigan Park) is good as if you win early in a group, then you’re off to a good start and have a bit of security behind you, so you aren’t chasing it.

“The top team goes straight through to the quarter-final, but it’s one game at a time and we won’t be thinking about Wexford or Fermanagh, just Leitrim to start off and when we get past that we’ll worry about the next one.”

Antrim’s defeat to Armagh in the Ulster Championship ended any hope of competing for Sam Maguire this year as their League finish ruled them out of making the cut of ranked teams after the eight provincial finalists and Westmeath - whose reward for winning last year’s Tailteann Cup is a place in the top competition - was taken into consideration.

In reality, Antrim would not be much of a threat to the top counties in the race for football’s top prize, but as a second seed in the Tailteann Cup, a deep run in the competition at least is within their grasp.

McBride has soldiered with the county for over a decade but is yet to enjoy that winning feeling in a final and any notion that winning a second-tier championship would mean less to the St John’s man was dismissed out of hand.

“Westmeath’s reward was a place in the Sam Maguire Cup, plus we’re looking at a situation where we want to win a trophy,” he insists.

“This is my 12th year playing for Antrim and I’m still to win a trophy. We’ve had a few good days out, got to a League (Division Four) final and lost it, or did get to a League final and could have won but Covid happened and we didn’t get to play it (2021 Division Four), so this is an opportunity.

“It’s an All-Ireland competition at your level, so that’s the goal and you get the chance to represent your county at Croke Park, so we’re looking forward to it as it’s a good competition to play in.

“This is our Championship and of course, you’re going to try your best to beat Armagh (in Ulster) but then you have to be realistic and look at the teams who are out of that (Ulster) competition already like Tyrone and Monaghan - teams who are in Division One - this is the competition at our level.”

With at least three games to come, it is also a chance for manager Andy McEntee and his squad with plenty of new faces to gel and try to make some further progress.
Performances this year have been mixed, so finding consistency will only come with playing more games and they will get those over the coming weeks.

"It’s class the way it’s structured with the group games because you can just go out, have an off-day and your year is over (with straight knockout),” McBride continued.
“Having the opportunity to get three games and progress is a good thing.”