Saffrons know victory in the Garden County can all but seal promotion
Allianz Football League Division Four
Wicklow v Antrim (Saturday, 12.30pm, Aughrim, live on GAA GO)
THE start of the Championship might officially be scheduled for later this month, but Paddy McBride feels Antrim’s vital league clash with Wicklow this Saturday might as well be a Championship tie for the Saffrons.
Lenny Harbinson’s men are on the cusp of securing promotion from Division Four following a stellar Spring campaign which was then halted as the Covid-19 pandemic forced the sporting world into lockdown.
Thankfully for Antrim and a host of other counties chasing promotion, the GAA kept their word and the Allianz football and hurling leagues will be completed over the next two weekends.
A stunning 12-point win over league-leaders Limerick in Portglenone on their last outing saw Antrim take control of their own fate.
The permuations are straight-forward for the Saffrons – two wins from two and they are guaranteed to gain promotion.
“This is championship. You wouldn't even call Saturday a league game - this is our championship and a must-win game for us”
They might even secure Division Three football with a win over Wicklow on Saturday, provided Limerick defeat Wexford and Sligo lose to Carlow.
However, McBride insists Antrim cannot get carried away with what might happen elsewhere and says their full focus is on getting the job done against the Garden County this weekend.
“This is championship. You wouldn't even call Saturday a league game - this is our championship and a must-win game for us,” said McBride.
“We can't be thinking about other results going our way – we have to only think of winning. No draws or thinking of other results.
“Hopefully other results take care of themselves, but if they don’t, we’ll have to go and win our last game.
“If would be great to get promoted on Saturday – if not we’ll have to go out and beat Waterford.”
Antrim had endured a rollercoaster campaign in the bid to gain promotion. They defeated Wexford in their first outing in Glenavy but lost in Sligo and were held to a draw by Carlow after narrowly defeating London.
Yet, the dynamic in Division Four shifted after round five as 2-3 from Naomh Éanna’s Odhran Eastwood helped Antrim claim a 2-21 to 1-12 win over a previously undefeated Limerick side at Portglenone.
The Covid pandemic meant that Antrim were unable to carry the momentum of that impressive victory into their clash with Wicklow, but McBride is hopeful that the squad can pick up where they left off in March.
“It is great to be back in training and I think everybody is looking forward to it,” said McBride.
“There were rumours of the games not going ahead and you panic a little. It would be brutal if they didn’t go ahead and it would just put a dampener on everything after training hard for it. Now they are going ahead it is good
“It doesn't feel like you're carrying on from the Limerick game because it was so long ago and because we haven't played on match together yet. You can’t even get friendly games because of Covid. You just have to hope you can gel as a team for these games.
“The positive I took is that we are back training and seeing each other again and there is a good mood about the place.
“It doesn't feel like there is any pressure on us. I think everyone is buzzing to get back at it.”
Harbinson has brought in four additional players for the crucial series of games which starts with Saturday’s trip to Aughrim.
The Saffrons will then host Waterford at Portglenone while they await the winners of Monaghan and Cavan in the Ulster Senior Football Championship next month.
They have been boosted by the return of Ryan Murray (Lámh Dhearg), Kevin O’Boyle (Cargin), Mark Sweeney (St Jude’s) and Paddy McCormick (Moneyglass).
The Antrim boss resisted the urge to bring in fresh players to the squad, opting instead to recall the experienced quartet.
“I know Lenny (Harbinson) could have brought in players who impressed him during the club championships,” added McBride.
“I can see the reasoning behind not bringing in new players as he may not get a chance to see much of them.
“The guys he has brought in are all players we all know, what they can do and players we have all played with.
“Kevin O'Boyle for me is still one of the best corner-backs in Ulster. Then you have the likes of Ryan Murray and Mark Sweeney who have been about for years. Paddy McCormick was on the panel last year and he was in Galway this year so he isn’t a stranger either.
“They are four great players to have back and they’ve definitely have boosted the panel and made us stronger.
“The likes of Kevin (O’Boyle), even if he doesn’t play, will be a big lift. He is a natural leader and his presence will be a motivation for the squad.”
Cargin’s Tomás McCann is another who could feature this weekend after a groin injury hampered his Antrim comeback earlier this season.
Elder brother Michael had already featured in the last two games against Carlow and Limerick and their availability gives Harbinson plenty of options in attack.
There appears to be real depth in the Antrim squad and that has only been bolstered by the return of O’Boyle, Murray, Sweeney and McCormick.
It remains to be seen if any of the quarter will be drafted straight into the starting line-up, but both O’Boyle and McCormick did impress during the club Championship with Cargin and Moneyglass clinching the Senior and Intermediate titles respectively.
Oisin Kerr also made a strong claim for the goalkeeper’s jersey after a solid campaign for beaten Senior finalists Creggan.
Kerr had started the majority of Antrim’s games this season, but Rasharkin’s Andrew Hasson was between the posts for the Limerick game.
St Gall’s ’keeper Chris Kerr had been in line for a return to county duty before a suffering a second ACL injury.
Harbinson could well keep faith with the same starting 15 which saw off Limerick in such ruthless fashion in March, although either Paddy Cunningham or Tomás McCann could be drafted in for their free-taking prowess.
Wicklow aren’t out of the promotion picture themselves, but they’ll realistically need to defeat Antrim if they are to give themselves a fighting chance going into the final round of games.
Davy Burke’s side did manage to defeat Sligo by five points one week after the Yeats County defeated Antrim so the Saffrons won’t be taking anything for granted this weekend.
Sligo, Wexford and Wicklow will be hoping Antrim and Limerick slip up to leave a five-way battle for promotion next weekend.
Yet, if Antrim can conjure up a repeat of March’s performance against Limerick, they’ll surely leave Aughrim with the two points and, perhaps, a place in Division Three.