TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Junior Football Championship semi-final
Antrim v Carlow (Dunleer, Sunday, 1pm)
IT has been a rollercoaster campaign thus far for the Antrim Ladies, but they are just 60 minutes away from making it through to the All-Ireland Junior final in Croke Park next month.

Emma Kelly’s side take on Carlow at Lann Léire GAC, Dunleer in Sunday’s semi-final in what is a repeat of their clash from the round-robin stages of the Championship.

Last month, Antrim claimed a 5-20 to 2-13 win over the Barrowsiders, but only after extra-time.

Now the sides return to the Louth venue with a place in the All-Ireland final at stake. Had the men’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final between Tyrone and Kerry proceeded this weekend, the Ladies JFC final was due to be the curtain-raiser to the men’s final at Croke Park on Saturday, September 4.

However, last weekend, the GAA agreed to Tyrone’s request for a further week to prepare for their meeting with the Kingdom and, subsequently, the All-Ireland decider was pushed back another week.

The Ladies junior final will now be played as the first game on Ladies final day on Sunday, September 5 (throw-in 11.45am) and Kelly says it is a massive incentive for both sides going into Sunday’s last four clash.

“We were buzzing when it was announced that the Junior final would be a curtain-raiser to the men’s final on Saturday, September 4 – it would have made history,” said Kelly.

“Antrim would have been given an allocation for All-Ireland tickets – everybody would have been your best friend in that case!

“It would be great to get to Croke Park – it is every player’s dream. It is a massive incentive for Carlow as well – they’ve never been in a Junior final.

“We can’t assume just because we’ve beaten Carlow before that we’ll beat them again. No game is ever won on previous results and the girls should know that from the Derry game.”

That round one defeat to the Oak Leaf county threatened to derail Antrim’s challenge from the start.

Having previously defeated Derry 4-17 to 0-8 in the Ulster final at Davitt Park, Kelly side then suffered a surprise 1-7 to 0-7 loss at Corrigan Park.

However, they got their Championship back on track with that extra-time win over Carlow thanks to goals in extra-time from Grainne McLaughlin, Aoife and Caitlin Taggart, Theresa Mallon and Cathy Carey.

The Saffrons followed that up with a 5-10 to 2-7 win over Limerick to effectively seal with place in the semi-finals before finishing off their round-robin games with a 1-17 to 1-12 defeat to last year’s All-Ireland finalists Wicklow in Mullahoran.

“I think the biggest danger for us against Derry, especially after what happened in the league, was complacency,” reflected Kelly.

“Not one girl could say they were anywhere near 50 per cent that day and Derry had a game-plan and they got better as the game went on. It was a wake-up call for us.

“Luckily, it was the first round, and it gave us time to recover.
“We didn’t put the scores on the board against Carlow and we were very lucky to get extra-time – they were two points up with five minutes to go and we pulled it out of the fire. In extra-time, our fitness showed and we hit them for the goals.

“That set up us nicely and helped gel the team. There was a bit of belief in the team and the buzz was back.”

Caitlin Taggart in action v Derry

Caitlin Taggart in action v Derry

Like many other teams in the country, Antrim have had to deal with players missing games and training because of close-contacts or testing positive for Covid-19.

Kelly confirmed that one player remains unavailable for selection for Sunday’s semi-final, but goalkeeper Anna McCann is back in contention after missing the games against Limerick and Wicklow after being forced into two separate 10-day isolation spells.

“We are doing lateral flow testing before training on Tuesday night and on Friday,” stated Kelly.

“Anyone with symptoms is told to stay away – we can’t risk the whole team.

“We brought in Julie Curran for the Limerick game to replace Anna McCann in goals as Anna had to isolate,” said the Antrim boss.

“Julie ended up making three or four wonder saves in the Limerick game.

“Anna has had to luck at all because she got ‘pinged’ again on the eve of the Wicklow game.

“She’ll be like a spring lamb at training this week - it is good to have competition for places.

“Girls should be champing at the bit to make the team for Sunday. We’ve maybe four or five positions up for grabs. It is a headache, but it is a good headache to have.”

Defender Niamh McIntosh is a major doubt for Sunday’s game after bursting and dislocating her finger in the win over Limerick, while Saoirse Tennyson remains sidelined with a recurring hamstring injury.

They may have struggled for consistency this season, but if Antrim can produce their best form, they ought to have enough firepower to see off the challenge of Carlow for the second time and book their place in the All-Ireland decider.