May old acquaintance be forgot: Paddy McBride switches into Championship mode
Antrim footballer Paddy McBride accesses the contact list on his mobile phone, searches under ‘A’ and deletes the details of his erstwhile county manager Gearoid Adams.
McBride is now in Championship mode.
Over the past month McBride has enjoyed a bit of friendly banter with his St John's clubmate and former Antrim boss Adams who is now part of Eamonn Burns’ Down backroom team.
But after a busy month of club football, the joking has stopped and McBride’s focus is on the 26 May meeting of Antrim and Down at Páirc Esler.
No distractions allowed… and the friendship can resume after their Ulster SFC quarter-final clash.
“It’s been good craic at training with me and Fitzy (Matthew Fitzpatrick) but after this week I’ll be avoiding him,” jokes McBride, a PE teacher at Coláiste Feirste in West Belfast.
The two counties haven’t crossed swords that often in pursuit of the Anglo-Celt over the years.
Indeed there’s only been two championship meetings so far this century with 2011 being the most recent encounter between the sides.
That resulted in a comfortable win for Down, with the Mournemen winning by a 12-point margin, while Antrim memorably ended an 18-year championship drought in a rainstorm at Casement Park in 2000.
The 2011 game, also at Casement Park, was in the third round of the qualifiers after Antrim had gathered a bit of momentum with wins over Westmeath and Carlow.
Down abruptly ended the Saffron winning streak… three minutes of magic settling that particular tie.
With the scores tied at 0-7 apiece just after half-time, Conor Laverty danced through the Antrim rear-guard to ripple the net before Martin Clarke raised a green flag to effectively put paid to Antrim’s hopes of an upset.
Conor Maginn and Kevin McKernan were both on the Down team that day, while Conor Murray is the sole Saffron survivor.
That was a Down side that had 12 months earlier reached an All-Ireland final.
Their stock has fallen considerably since then however. The Mournemen will ply their trade in Division 3 of the Allianz League next year.
League head-to-heads don’t really tell us much either with Down generally operating at a higher grade than their neighours. A 2004 draw at Casement Park is the only league meeting between the two sides in recent memory.
“The way we’re looking at it is that this is a winnable game for us. It’s a team we know well, we’ve played them a lot in challenge games and McKenna Cup and there’s a lot of players we’d know well,” said McBride.
“Myself and Fitzy went to university with a lot of them. We’re not looking at them with any fear – which is how Down will be looking at us I’d say. It would certainly be a good scalp for us in the championship but it’s definitely a game we can win.”
If Down’s stock has fallen in the past eight years, Antrim’s would scarcely encourage many investors. Defeats in round one or two of the qualifiers have been the Saffrons’ lot for the past five seasons, while they will spend another year in Division 4 in 2019.
Despite losing just one league game, Antrim missed out on promotion, finishing third behind Laois and Carlow. That’s life in Division 4 – there’s a hair’s breadth between all the teams and a dropped point can make the difference between promotion and another year in the basement.
Antrim drew with Wicklow and lost to Carlow – both at home. A win over Limerick and a bit of incorrect reporting looked to have kept them in the hunt until the final round of games but Laois’s win over Carlow secured promotion for the two Leinster sides.
“We had thought that Carlow had beaten Laois. Someone had told us that Carlow had won and we thought we were going to be playing Laois the following week. We were all buzzing going into the changing room and then we found out that Laois had actually won,” said McBride.
“The killer for us was the Wicklow game at Corrigan Park. We threw that one away. It was a disappointing league because even though performances were good, we wanted to be getting promotion out of Division 4 and we believe we should have been getting promoted from there. But it’s something we need to rectify next year.
“Once you’re down there, it is hard to get out of it. It’s a dog fight. Every team believes they shouldn’t be there and every team is trying hard to get out of it so every match is hard, there’s no such thing as a handy match.”
However McBride is adamant that the disappointment of the league will not affect their championship preparations. There’s been four rounds of club football in the Antrim leagues to get the frustration out of the system and a training weekend is planned between now and the Down game.
“We took a week or so off after the league and after the first training session back we had a meeting - more or less a league review meeting - to look at things that went wrong and things that we needed to improve on,” McBride said.
“But when you know championship is coming, the league goes out of your mind. We’re playing championship football in three weeks’ time and the last thing I’m thinking about is the disappointment of the league.
“I don’t think it’s that hard to motivate people coming into a championship game. We just missed out on promotion, we only lost one game, so it’s not as if we’re coming off a league campaign where we ended up in sixth or seventh place.
“And because it’s against Down it’s easy to motivate yourself... we know each other well, it’s not difficult to pick people up to go and play an Ulster championship game.”
There’s nothing better that McBride would enjoy than texting Adams a photo of a victorious Antrim team bus leaving Páirc Esler on the 26th of May… assuming someone else on the bus has his phone number of course.
Matthew Fitzpatrick’s goal against Limerick in the Allianz League, caught on camera by Antrim GAA and shared online, was widely admired by the twitterati as one of the best goals of the league and showed the sort of football that Antrim are capable of when they move the ball at speed and run directly at defences.
They have players who can break at pace such as Paddy McBride, Ryan and Conor Murray and Paddy McAleer and averaged a respectable 15 points a game in the league. They also conceded just one goal in their six games and boasted the meanest defence across the four divisions.
They have also had a nice spread of scorers with typically six or seven different players per game raising flags. The pressure will be on Down to produce a result at home and Antrim will hope to sneak in under the radar.
They lost one game from six while Down have just one victory in their last four outings. Under new manager Lenny Harbinson, Antrim have been difficult to beat and despite relegation to Division 4 will not go into the championship short on confidence.
While Antrim can look great when breaking quickly, they can be ponderous on the ball when faced with a packed defence. At times during the league they overdid the lateral ball on occasion, waiting too long for a runner to break the lines.
Antrim fans will want to see a more cavalier approach from their charges after ultra-defensive championship setups against Donegal last year and Fermanagh in 2016. They certainly have players to do damage if they get them on the ball in the scoring zone but that will require a more attacking set-up than employed under previous management.
While a 15-point average per game is respectable, the standard of opposition in Division 4 has to be taken into account. Down are coming off the back of a season in Division 2 so Antrim can’t afford any lapses in concentration throughout the 70 minutes.
They could do with a variation to their kick-out strategy which was exposed by Carlow in particular, albeit when Antrim were without a number of first choice players. Shot selection could have better at times during the league and if they are to spring a surprise against Down, they will need to avail of all scoring opportunities.