Kevin O'Boyle leads Antrim as they start season with Tyrone test
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section A: Tyrone v Antrim (Wednesday, Athletic Grounds, 8pm)
WHILE Tyrone supporters may crib about seeing yet another game switched over the border into Armagh, they should be consoled by the fact that the Athletic Grounds is something of a second home for the Red Hands in the Dr McKenna Cup.
The county’s six-year winning run in the competition has seen them play three semi-finals and five finals at the venue, and, of course, they’ve won all eight of those matches.
The heavy rain that forced the move from Healy Park yesterday evening may provide a silver lining for Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson as well.
The Belfast man was preparing for the possibility of a few pull-outs from some of his panel members who are based in Dublin, but chopping off 40 minutes of travel time each way may just make it workable for one or two of those.
Harbinson’s last appearance on a sideline came back in September at tonight’s venue, and a lot has changed since then.
He watched on as his Ballymacnab side lost out in the Armagh semi-final against Armagh Harps, and that defeat led to his focus diverting solely to Saffron matters.
His time with the panel remains brief, but he is confident that progress is already being made and is hopeful that the side can make a positive impression throughout January.
“We’ve had a group of players training hard over the last number of weeks,” said Harbinson.
“It’s an opportunity to benchmark yourself against one of the best in class. That’s not only in Ulster, but in Ireland.
“Over the last few years Tyrone have been recognised as one of the top four or five teams in the country.
“Okay I imagine they’ll probably experiment a bit but it’s also an opportunity for us to experiment with different people in the panel and see just what level they’re at.”
Antrim’s Division Four campaign starts in just over three weeks so Harbinson is hoping to see some new players make an impact, and quickly, in order to have the side primed for the visit of Leitrim on January 28.
“You’re hoping that your new faces can step up to the plate and put other people under pressure. Not just putting people under pressure, but demanding a place in the team.
“Our big focus is the end of January and the beginning of the National Football League.
“The next few games are a chance to see how these players can compete against a Division One side in Tyrone and a Division Two side in Cavan.
“It’s a step up and we want to see how we can deal with that.”
Harbinson has confirmed that Kevin O’Boyle will captain Antrim in 2018.
The Cargin defender was previously given the honour by both Liam Bradley and Frank Dawson and his current manager believes that he is made for the role.
“He’s got the respect of the players, he leads from the front,” said Harbinson.
“His attitude, his attributes, everything you’d want, they’re all spot on.”
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has named two debutants for tonight’s clash with Brendan Burns and Michael McKernan set to make their first starts in defence.
Burns’s inclusions means that there will be four Pomeroy players in the first 15 as the McGeary brothers, Hugh Pat and Kieran, are named in the half-back line while Frank Burns will play up front.
Moy’s Harry Loughran has kept his promise of combining club and county commitments in January as he has been named at full-forward.
Moy play Kerry’s An Ghaeltacht in the All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final later in the month but Loughran had indicated that he would like to remain available for Tyrone duty for as long as possible.
Mattie Donnelly, who has been named captain following Sean Cavanagh’s retirement, is also named to start in a strong looking side. It’s certainly strong enough to get off to a comfortable winning start as they begin the hunt for a seventh straight Dr McKenna Cup triumph.
Tyrone: N Morgan; B Burns, P Hampsey, M McKernan; T McCann, HP McGeary, K McGeary; C McShane, P McNulty; M Donnelly, N Sludden, F Burns; D McCurry, H Loughran, L Brennan