Down and Antrim clash in Ulster Championship quarter-final
Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Down v Antrim (today, Pairc Esler, 7pm)
By Andy Watters
INSTEAD of being the first part of a cross-continental double-header, Down versus Antrim has been matched up against Liverpool versus Real Madrid in the Champions League final and the attendance at Pairc Esler will suffer accordingly.
The players and their faithful supporters will be able to hear the roars from the Newry pubs if Liverpool score in Kiev, but they will only be concerned with what happens at Pairc Esler and you can expect absolute commitment from first whistle to last.
While this might be viewed in some quarters as a clash of alsorans, Down proved last year that momentum is a precious commodity in the Ulster Championship.
The Mournemen were underdogs against Armagh and then Monaghan but beat them both to reach the Ulster final and they'll feel they can do the same this year by beating today's opponents and then Derry or Donegal.
“We showed it perfectly in the semi-final last year that anybody can be turned over,” said team captain Niall McParland.
“We beat Monaghan – the same team that beat Tyrone last Sunday – so, in terms of Ulster this year, I think it's going to be very interesting.”
Down's 2017 run was attributed to their last-gasp survival in the second tier, but this year they were relegated to Division Three despite claiming wins over Louth, Roscommon (the eventual champions) and Tipperary.
“We finished on more points this year (six) than we did last year (five) in the League,” points out Killowen PS teacher McParland.
“A few of our performances was brilliant, we just couldn't get the scores. The results went against us this year and we got relegated but we're actually in better shape now than we were last year.
“This time last year nobody would have tipped us to get to the Ulster final and we're in the same position again – we're not being tipped to do anything in Ulster, but we're prepared for a Championship.
“This is what we've trained for since early December, this is what it's for and hopefully we can come out and show it.”
Down have lost some experienced personnel since last year's run including goalkeeper Michael Cunningham, Aidan Carr, Mark Poland and Burren pair Conaill and Gerard McGovern, but McParland is one of seven listed starters who started all seven Division Two games this season
“There have been new personnel introduced this year,” he explained.
“There's the likes of Colly Fla (Colm Flanagan) and Benny McArdle didn't play last year and they have a good League campaign behind them now.
“There are new boys there, but we do have a settled team. Everyone knows what their role is and hopefully that shows through on Saturday.”
Antrim have an even more settled line-up for this quarter-final. Eleven of their players featured in all six games in a Division Four campaign that was competitive but ultimately failed to deliver promotion.
The 11 includes goalkeeper Chris Kerr and the back six and that continuity undoubtedly contributed to Antrim's superb defensive record.
The Saffrons had the tightest defence in the country, conceding 1-64 in six games and the only man to beat Kerr all season was Carlow's Darragh Foley.
Against that defence this evening is a Down attack that struggled to convert chances throughout the League. With Harrison (a marked man after his form last year) suspended for the red card he received against Cork, opportunities came and went and points slipped away against Clare and Cavan.
Down skipper McParland has admitted that spectators in the Pairc Esler stand could begin to get nervous and take out their frustration on the players if things aren't going their side's way so a better conversion rate will be required this evening because Antrim will get men behind the ball to soak up space and the longer the game goes on, the more the visitors will grow in confidence..
Perennial whipping boys Antrim have won just one provincial Championship game since their last Ulster final appearance back in 2009 and travel south as rank underdogs. Last year they had some good first half moments against Donegal, but were well beaten at the finish and were among the first counties to exit the All-Ireland series when they lost Sligo in the first round of Qualifiers.
Since then, canny manager Lenny Harbinson - a club All-Ireland winner with St Gall's – has taken over from Frank Fitzsimmons and Gearoid Adams (who is in the Down management team today).
Adams will have the inside track on Antrim, but Harbinson has done his homework on Down too and noted how the Mournemen struggled to win kick-outs against beanpole midfielders this year.
He has drafted in former Brisbane Lions star Niall McKeever to partner Paddy McAleer in midfield and it looks certain that Antrim will push up on the Down kick-outs and force Marc Reid to kick the ball long into midfield where 6'5” Portglenone clubman McKeever and McAleer will fancy their chances of ruling the roost.
Muscular Down duo Peter Turley and Niall Donnelly will have something to say about that and Down will flood the middle third to win break ball and look to find Harrison, O'Hare and Maginn by kicking the ball long into the corners.
When Antrim attack, Down will funnel men back and they looked most solid in the League when they played McParland in front of the full-back line and Kevin McKernan as a spare man at centre-half back.
That system gave Caolan Mooney – a goalscorer when these sides last met in 2011 – licence to get forward and with his pace and movement he is one player Antrim will be unable to contain if he gets enough ball in his hands.
Harrison is another potential matchwinner for Down while Antrim will hope that Matt Fitzpatrick and Ryan Murray can produce the scores they will need to win a low-scoring encounter.
Quick and direct, Murray was the key forward in the League while Fitzpatrick, a Sigerson Cup winner with St Mary's, is a quality operator at half-forward or in the full-forward line.
The longer Antrim stay in this game, the better chance they have of winning it so they won't over-commit in attack and leave themselves open to Down counterattacks.
They will look to make this a war of attrition and, if they can do that, they have a chance. But this is Down's game to lose. The Mournemen have the attacking power, hunger and experience to take the game to the Saffrons. They should win it with a bit to spare, if they take their chances.