Bathshack Antrim SHC Group Two; Naomh Éanna v St Gall’s (Sunday, Hightown, 2pm)
WHEN these sides last met in the Antrim Hurling Championship, it was an Intermediate semi-final clash in 2018 at Corrigan Park.
On that occasion, St Gall’s prevailed by six points before going on to beat Creggan in the county final.
The Milltown men would go on to add provincial honours to their Antrim title and their achievements were emulated by Naomh Éanna last season when they annexed the Antrim and Ulster Intermediate crowns.
While the status of both teams have changed since 2018, the management of both clubs have as well.
After their All-Ireland Club IHC semi-final loss to Tullaroan in Parnell Park back in January, Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton departed to return to return to his native Cushendall for the 2020 season.
The search for his successor was long and fruitless and, as Covid-19 enforced lockdown began, Naomh Éanna were still without a manger.
In the end, David Ross, father of senior captain Cormac, stepped forward along with Jamie Curran, brother of Martin and Philly Curran.
The duo have only been in the role for five weeks, but they’ve already made an impact after Naomh Éanna claimed a stunning win over St John’s on their return to league action last month.
“Terence (McNaughton) was in with us last year and everyone was aware that his tenure was only going to be a year. Surprisingly, we actually had a problem attracting a manager for the incoming year,” stated Ross.
“The position remained vacant for quite a while and then I was asked as I had a history with most of the boys on the panel having coached them from U14 through to Minor.
“Myself and Jamie Curran stepped in as joint-managers in this shortened season.”
Remarking on their famous 4-15 to 3-12 win over the Johnnies, he added:
“Championship and league are two different matters completely.
“Although that was a very good win against St John’s, we have already consigned it to the history books.
“It isn’t really material to what might happen against St Gall’s, or indeed against Cushendall or Loughgiel.”
While their last two group games may be slightly daunting, Sunday’s game promises to be a close affair.
While Naomh Éanna probably lacked the same craft and big-game experience as St Gall’s in 2018, they showed an abundance of determination in last year’s memorable Championship campaign.
They battled last Creggan in a dour quarter-final and claimed extra-time wins over Bredagh and Dungannon in their Ulster campaign with the Ulster Final against the Tyrone side going to a controversial penalty shoot-out.
Indeed, David’s son Cormac was the only scorer in the shoot-out at Celtic Park, but he feels St Gall’s still hold the upper hand in terms of experience ahead of Sunday’s clash.
“St Gall’s are the more seasoned campaigners of the two teams and they are the ones with senior Championship experience,” said Ross.
“It was a great year last year, but you can’t dine out on it for too long.
“Championship hurling is a good leveller. It is who turns up on the day and who wants to win.
“I would suggest St Gall’s have a lot more experience over us in that regard. That said, last year should stand to our boys and I think we’ve become a bit more battle-hardened and that should be in our favour.
“We’ve wanted to be at the top table for a long time. We’ve worked our way up and we have been working hard at it for the last 15 years. We want to stay there for a while and make an impact.”
While Naomh Éanna had a Cushendall native on the sideline last year in the form of former Antrim star and former Saffron manager McNaughton, his clubmate Chris Dornan is the St Gall’s senior hurling manager for 2020.
Sunday’s game will be his first game in charge after their league fixture against Clooney Gaels was called off last month.
That was the night Naomh Éanna claimed the scalp of St John’s and Dornan believes the Glengormley men will carry the favourites tag going into this weekend’s clash.
“That result made us sit up and take notice to be fair,” stated Dornan.
“I was surprised even with the team St John’s had out – I thought they would have been strong enough to get the win. It just shows the work St Enda’s have done over the last number of years.
“We would never overlook or underestimate them, but I was certainly more confident before that game!
“I think it might have made some of the players sit up and take notice as well.
“They are on a crest of a wave from last season, winning Division Two and winning the Antrim and Ulster Intermediate titles.
“St Gall’s were relegated from Division One last year and didn’t really pull up any trees in the senior Championship last year.
“I’m not just saying it for the sake of it, but St Enda’s would be favourites for Sunday just going on the trajectory of the two teams over the last year.”
While the senior hurlers of St Gall’s haven’t had a competitive game in 2020, their dual players were in action against Naomh Éanna, losing by two points at home in their Group 4 clash.
Dornan reported that the dual players all came through the game unscathed and says he has enjoyed a good working relationship with football manager Paddy Murray thus far even if it is a novelty to him.
“To be fair, Paddy Murray (football manager) and myself have been working well together. We had two weeks with them before the football Championship. We don’t have to worry about fitness with the dual players so we just concentrate on the stick work when they are in with us.
“When I took the job on at the start of the year, I was a bit worried about the set-up. Being from Cushendall, you could have hurlers our five or six nights a week and nobody would bat an eyelid, but I’ve been surprised by how well it has worked in a dual club.”
CJ McGourty, Sean and Conor Burke, Jackson McGreevy and Marcus Donnelly all started last Sunday’s football game while Aodhan Gallagher was introduced at half-time.
Naomh Éanna don’t have the same overlap of players with only Killian Jennings playing both codes at present.
That ought to leave the hosts a tad fresher for Sunday’s tie, which must rank as the best chance for a Championship win for both teams with games against Cushendall and Loughgiel on the horizon.
It can sometimes be foolish to read too much into a league game, but that win over St John’s will have given Naomh Éanna the belief that they can prove the doubters wrong at senior level and won’t be as big of a shock if they turn St Gall’s over on Sunday.