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Saffron Saturday as hurlers and footballers seek to progress

Antrim senior hurlers, pictured before last week’s win against Offaly, can all but seal their place in the Joe McDonagh Cup final with a win over the Lake County at Dunloy on Saturday Antrim senior hurlers, pictured before last week’s win against Offaly, can all but seal their place in the Joe McDonagh Cup final with a win over the Lake County at Dunloy on Saturday
By Paddy Tierney

Joe McDonagh Cup Round Four
Antrim v Westmeath (Saturday, 2pm, Dunloy)

THE permutations are much simpler for Antrim this time around as they seek to reach the Joe McDonagh Cup final. Almost exactly 12 months ago, the Saffrons had to defeat Kerry in Cushendall while also needing a favour from Westmeath against Carlow.

In any case, neither result went their way and Antrim needed to defeat Kildare in the Athletic Grounds to maintain their status in hurling’s second tier.

As fate would have it, the man who won the Christy Ring Cup last year with the Lilywhites last season will be trying to put the brakes on Antrim’s progress after Joe Quaid took over as Westmeath manager from Michael Ryan last year.

A win for Westmeath would leave them in pole position to claim a place in the decider while Antrim would qualify for the final with a win on Saturday coupled with a victory for Laois over Kerry this weekend.

Failure to defeat Westmeath could see Antrim facing an anxious wait to learn the results of next weekend’s final games, but manager Neal Peden wants his team to keep their fate in their own hands.

“We met Westmeath earlier in the year and we drew with them in the Kehoe Cup. We met them again in Corrigan Park and they beat us,” said Peden.

“I’ve said it before – there’s nothing between any of the teams in the Joe McDonagh Cup.

“It is about who performs on the day and that has been proven by our results. Against Laois, we didn’t perform to the level we wanted. Against Kerry and Offaly, we showed the level we can get to and I think that will be the case again on Saturday.

“Our goal is to get to the Joe McDonagh final and it is up to us to prove on Saturday we should be in it.

“I don’t think too many people would have fancied us to get there at the beginning of the year, but we’ve built this team up. We’ve a great belief within this camp that we can go on and win this Joe McDonagh Cup.

“If we beat Westmeath, we believe we’ll be in the final. That’s all we can do – the other results will take care of themselves.”

Last summer, Antrim were pipped at the post in an enthralling Joe McDonagh Cup battle against Westmeath in Mullingar’s Cusack Park.

Last weekend, the Saffrons showed immense character in overcoming Offaly at O’Connor Park having lost full-back Martin Burke to an early red card.

All too often in recent campaigns, Antrim have come out on the wrong side of narrow league and Championship battles.

Peden is hoping last Saturday doesn’t prove to be another false dawn for the Antrim hurlers and thinks his players will grow in stature having gained a remarkable Championship victory.

“To go to Tullamore and play in a match like that and come out on the other side with a result is very pleasing,” said Pedan.

“It showed the great belief in the team because Offaly were hurling for their life and you could see their intensity was raised. We were able to match them in every area of the pitch and that was pleasing for the players and the management team.

“We put in a good performance against Kerry – the passion and intensity was there. We know if we play like that on any given day, we’ll be hard to beat. Against Laois, we just didn’t hit those heights unfortunately.

“When we went a man down against Offaly, it took us a couple of minutes to regroup, but we showed that we weren’t there to just make up the numbers, we were there to win the game.”

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifiers Round One
Louth v Antrim (Saturday, 7pm, Drogheda)

IF Antrim thought they got it tough in their provincial Championship quarter-final against Tyrone, spare a thought for Louth.

The Wee County took a big beating when they went up against the reigning All-Ireland Senior Football kingpins Dublin in Portlaoise.

The five-in-a-row seeking Boys in Blue eased to a 5-21 to 0-10 win with Cormac Costello posting 1-12. Brian Fenton, Con O’Callaghan, Michael Darragh Macauley and Philly McMahon scored the other goals on a procession for Jim Gavin’s men.

With both sides coming off the back of heavy defeats to last year’s All-Ireland finalists, it will be interesting to see just how Louth and Antrim respond at the Gaelic Grounds in Drogheda.

Antrim were huge underdogs to defeat Tyrone and they’ll go into Saturday’s game seeking their first Championship victory since defeating Laois in the Qualifiers back in 2015.

Forward, Matthew Fitzpatrick is fully aware of Antrim’s disappointing record in Championship football and he is determined to end their winless run.

“It is hard to judge. This game is so important for both teams to save their season,” said Fitzpatrick.

“We know Tyrone are a lot better than us, so we weren’t judging our season on whether or not we beat Tyrone. We are judging it on whether we can win our next game.

“To get respect, we need to win. If we want people to come out and support us and people to commit to it, we need to win games.
“We owe the people in Antrim and ourselves a win in the Championship. It has been a few years now since our last win and it isn’t acceptable.”

The high turnover of players within the Antrim squad in recent times has been a source of great debate within the county and, yet again, manager Lenny Harbinson has been hit by the withdrawal of another player on the eve of their Qualifier tie.

Naomh Éanna attacker Odhran Eastwood will play no further part for Antrim this season after heading to America for an extended break last week.

The continued fine form of Fitzpatrick, Paddy McBride and Ryan Murray will be key, but Harbinson’s men must gain a quick foothold in the game to get their confidence going.

Failure to do so would leave Antrim staring at a fourth successive season without a Championship win. Victory over the Wee County is a big must for the Saffrons.

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