RIDING high off the back of their inspiring victory over Monaghan a fortnight ago, the Antrim ladies have their sights firmly set on Clare in Sunday’s All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final in Longford.

The ladies have been the surprise package in this season’s competition with dominating displays against experienced and capable opposition.

At the beginning of June, the Saffrons kicked off their Championship campaign by defeating Westmeath and Longford convincingly as the ladies eased past the Leinster duo to top Group 4 in fantastic fashion.

Results in the group should have been a precursor to their success but the Super Saffs were written off time and time again only to prevail, something which manager Emma Kelly believes has given her side a strong incentive to silence their critics.

“We have relished being the underdogs this year. Every time we play people have sort of written us off, but people are beginning to notice us because we are battling against the odds and winning,” she said.

To appreciate how massive an achievement this truly is, flip the calendar back 12 months to when Antrim competed in and won the Junior level of the Championship.

Taking that step up in  the competition is an achievement in itself, but the fact that Antrim are serious contenders in their debut season at Intermediate level is testament to not only the players but the staff working to create the magic.

Órlaith Prenter notched 2-3 for Antrim against Monaghan

Órlaith Prenter notched 2-3 for Antrim against Monaghan

“A lot of people never expected to see us here, especially so soon,” said Kelly.

“For us at the minute our confidence is high and the girls are firm believers they aren’t there to make up the numbers and on Sunday we have 60 minutes in front of us to get ourselves into our dream 2pm slot at Croke Park and once again compete for another All-Ireland. If we manage that it truly is a dream come true, being able to show our style of play in front of a bigger and louder Croke Park crowd than ever before.”

Kelly believes that her side’s victory over Monaghan was a marker set down by Antrim but she also believes that Sunday’s clash will be a very different game, given that the  sides have yet to compete against one another this year.

“Every game is recorded so we could analyse to the back teeth, but plans are dependent on players on the day who could perform unbelievably and nullify their threat, or we could turn up and the girls might just not be at their best. Clare could have the same issues, but I feel that we have a brilliant squad of players even with major injuries to some players like Niamh MacIntosh and Anna Mahaul, but some characters in the squad have really stepped up and taken their place.

“They have a fire and resilience in their belly. Clare have probably analysed us but if our girls play to their potential and we manage to achieve our gameplan then who knows what will happen? If we can try and capitalise on their weaknesses then I back us big-time even though we are still huge underdogs.”

Clare managed to overcome Westmeath in their quarter-final to set up the tie with Antrim, and while Emma Kelly must know that her side have done the county proud regardless of the result – that kind of thinking is for the team and management.

“I know what they’ve done so far is amazing,” she continued, “but sometimes I’m very critical of them – if maybe they come in at half-time up by seven or eight points but they had six or seven wides. I will let them know and sometimes I may come off as over-critical but if I didn’t think they had the ability I wouldn’t be constantly asking for improvement because I know they can still get better."

She added: “We want to get that one step further because there is a strong belief in the camp that we can do it. I tell the girls every game that we can’t babysit them, it’s up to them now to make something happen – now you cannot rely on anyone else but yourself and your teammates.”

The ladies’ coach touched on the atmosphere around training surrounding the week leading up to the big game and how her squad are pulling no punches in training.

“The girls are buzzing and raring to go, but Clare will be up for it as they are favourites. But in training the girls will certainly not be going easy on each other because it just isn’t in their nature to let up.”

The Saffrons will be taking no risks for Sunday, the squad plan to travel well in advance to prevent any potential travel sickness previously experienced throughout the season. Kelly is confident that her side will be up for Sunday’s huge contest and that Antrim will do everything they can in the knowledge they can be Dublin-bound at the end of the month.

“We have nothing to lose on Sunday, so we will go hell for leather to make sure we leave it all on the pitch. There is no expectation from anyone on the outside so the only expectations on our performance will be from ourselves – we are our own worst critics but that’s something I love.

“We have our eyes on two or three players in the Clare squad, but I am quietly confident because the thing about our squad is that even if three or four of our best scorers are kept quiet by their markers, we have another three at least who will be able to step up, so we are really a strong attacking side and that is something that I am proud of.”

Emma believes that this year’s campaign is only the beginning for her squad and their achievements so far can only be improved in her eyes.

“I believe this is only the beginning and even though we’re getting all this ‘you’re doing really well’ I am very critical of them because I can see the potential that they have. I am always pressing for improvement and hopefully on Sunday we can show that we are up there with some of the best in the country.”

The ladies will be hoping for all the support they can get this Sunday. They have lit up Antrim football, something that has not been said for many a year.

The ladies will battle it out with Clare in Longford on Sunday with throw-in set for 2pm in the hopes of securing a consecutive All-Ireland final. Tickets for the game are still available at universe.com or alternatively the game will be shown for free on TG4 Youtube.