ANTRIM’S Peter Healy grew up watching Stephen O’Neill sell dummy solos to the best defenders in Ireland – now the former Tyrone star is teaching the Saffrons how it is done as part of Enda McGinley’s management team.
Healy says there is a great sense of anticipation in the camp as they prepare for the forthcoming campaign under the guidance of the Red Hand legends McGinley and O’Neill with Stevie Quinn of Errigal Ciaran and St Gall’s ace Sean Kelly completing an exciting management line-up.
However, Antrim have little time to fine-tune their preparations for the forthcoming season as they’ll return to action on Sunday when they travel to Haggardstown near Dundalk for their Allianz Football League opener against Louth.
The venue played host to Antrim’s Division Four clash with Waterford last October as Healy knows there will be even little room for error this time around in Division Four North with home games against Sligo and Leitrim to follow.
“It is great to get back out with the lads,” stated Healy.
“We’ve obviously had plenty of contact with the new management, but it is nice to meet face-to-face. First impressions were brilliant.
“I grew up watching Stephen O’Neill give boys dummy solos – now he is showing us how to do it.
“It is too early to know how things will work out, but everyone is raring to go and we are all looking forward to the League.
“Our group looks very competitive and we’ve Louth in the first game so I’m sure there will be a big media interest in Enda (McGinley) and Stephen (O’Neill) coming up against Mickey Harte (Louth manager).
“It will be tight going. We have to be confident in our own ability. We’ve definitely got the players there to get out of Division Four, it is just a matter of putting the work in, getting a good system in place and pushing on.
“If we can go into next month flying, it will make a huge difference because it will be over in a flash. There are no second chances.
“Last year was slightly different as we lost a few games, but were still in the mix. Usually that’s not the case and, with the new format, we have three games and we have to hit the ground running.”
Both Louth and Leitrim dropped down from Division Three last season while Sligo defeated Antrim by the narrowest of margins last February in Markievicz Park.
The Yeatsmen also have a new manager for the forthcoming campaign in the form of former Armagh and Crossmaglen All-Ireland winner Tony McEntee.
While Antrim’s have, undoubtedly, been pitted in the tougher of the two Division Four groups, their Championship task isn’t exactly easy either.
The draw for this summer’s Ulster SFC pitted Antrim against Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh at the Athletic Grounds on either Saturday, July 3 or Sunday, July 4.
With winners of the quarter-final will progress to a semi-final meeting with either Monaghan or Fermanagh.
On the other side of the draw, Down will host Donegal in the preliminary round for the right to face Derry in the quarter-final while Tyrone take on defending provincial champions Cavan at Healy Park.
With Armagh competing in Division One (North) this season, the Orchard County will be strongly fancied to book their place in the last four.
Yet, Antrim came very close to pulling off a shock win in the Cathedral City in their last competitive clash with Armagh in a heated Division Three meeting in 2017.
CJ McGourty missed a late penalty for Antrim with Armagh winning 1-12 to 0-13 with Antrim suffering relegation following their final game against Longford which ended in a draw.
“Armagh are a very good side these days,” said Healy.
“When we played them four years ago in the Athletic Grounds, it was a tight enough game, but they’ve pushed on massively since then.
“They are back where they should be in Division One. We are still in a bit of a slump, like they were back then, and we are still trying to get ourselves out of it. Armagh are a quality side and it will be a good test.
“I remember the League game well. It was pretty tasty with plenty of talking points!
“They have plenty of young players who probably weren’t involved back then and they’ve one of the best forward lines in the country. It is the Ulster Championship, no matter who you get, it is always going to a good test.
“Donegal play Down in the preliminary round and might end up having to play four games against Division One and Division Two sides to win a provincial title – it is definitely the most competitive Championship out there.
“If we can go into next month flying, it will make a huge difference because it will be over in a flash. There are no second chances.”
Healy also feels that Cavan’s surprise Ulster Championship success should give other counties the belief to close the gap to the chasing pack.
Antrim are without a win in the Ulster SFC since 2014’s quarter-final victory over Fermanagh in Brewster Park, but the Breffnimen won the Anglo Celt last season after suffering relegation from Division Three.
Indeed, Mickey Graham’s men beat Antrim along the way, claiming a hard-tough four-point win in Kingspan Breffni Park in November while they also accounted for Monaghan, Down and Donegal before losing to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Antrim may have to come from further back than Cavan, but the Saffrons also missed a host of chances in the second half and Healy believes they can take encouragement from their Championship performance.
“Last year, we gave Cavan a good game – that one could have gone either way,” added the Naomh Éanna defender.
“It is very hard to tell where Armagh will be in two months’ time and where we’ll be.
“Hopefully, we can string a few good performances together in the League – that’s our priority.
“Sometimes you don’t want to read too much into one game, but we certainly missed a number of chances in the second half against Cavan.
“Hopefully it showed that we do have the players there and we can compete on our day. It is just about putting those good days back-to-back and getting on a good run – get ourselves out of Division Four and push on from there.”