Antrim County Focus: as they head into another GAA National League campaign
Division 4 dogfight… basement battle… it's not just for the purpose of alliteration that these and similar journalistic clichés have been regularly used to describe games on the lowest rung of the Allianz Football League ladder in recent years.
This year is set to continue the trend; but Antrim are used to it by now. Of his six seasons with the Saffron footballers, Ryan Murray has spent four of them battling to get out of Division 4. In his inaugural season, 2013, and again in 2017, Antrim plied their trade in Division 3, suffering relegation both times.
In all those years in Division 4, the Saffrons were the sole Ulster side. That means long away journeys to places like Limerick, Waterford, London, Carlow… overnight stays, more time away from home and family, arriving home just the right side of midnight on Sunday.
“If you go down to these grounds and you're not tuned in, you can easily find yourself on the wrong side of the result. Everyone is fighting for their lives in Division 4. There's no wriggle room whatsoever and there's nothing flashy about it. They're usually tight, tactical games and you just want to get out of those places with a win and get back up the road,” said Murray
“We've been in Division 4 too often for our liking. If you can get a couple of wins at the start of the league you can carry that momentum through and that's what we'll be hoping to do.”
Antrim have Ulster company this year in the form of Derry, and it's the Oak Leafers who are first up for Murray and his team mates at Glenavy on January 27. Derry are odds-on favourites with the bookies to go straight back up to Division 3 but the odds for the rest of the teams make interesting reading.
The next four teams – Wexford, Antrim, Leitrim and Limerick - are separated by just one point in the betting. Antrim were beaten only once in last year's campaign but still didn't make the final, and as the odds bear out, this year will be just as close.
With zero margin for error, the Ulster derby opener against the favourites could prove to be a season-defining game.
“Here we are in January and we're two weeks away from what feels like a championship game. Derry seem to be getting themselves going and are looking to have a big year and push on and build something. I'm sure they have moved in in price after every McKenna Cup game,” said the Lámh Dhearg clubman.
“The next group behind Derry… ourselves, Leitrim, Wexford, Limerick are all tightly packed. Usually you can look at Division 4 and see two or three teams which have a slightly better chance of getting promoted but this year it's probably five or six that would fancy themselves to get up to Division 3.”
Murray made his Antrim debut during the first management stint of Liam ‘Baker' Bradley, coming on as sub against Offaly at Casement Park in round 3 of the 2013 Allianz League. He made an appearance that summer in a qualifier game against Tipperary and by the start of the 2013 season, Murray had secured a place in starting 15 under new boss Frank Dawson.
Murray has grown into one of Antrim's key attacking threats under Dawson's replacement Frank Fitzsimons and current boss Lenny Harbinson, and was the Saffrons' top scorer in last year's campaign with 1-22 from six games.
Outside football, Murray is a civil engineer for engineering consultancy firm Arup, a multinational company with offices all over the world, however football keeps him in Belfast, dedicated to club and county.
He plays alongside his brother Conor in both club and county colours, and until recently eldest brother Kevin was also a club team mate before branching out into management. Kevin was the first of the Murray family to make their way to the Hannahstown club, recruited by club stalwart Paul Buchanan.
Ryan and Conor faced their eldest sibling last year in the Antrim senior football championship when Lámh Dhearg faced Aghagallon. Kevin was wearing the bainisteoir's bib for Aghagallon and it was the two younger brothers who earned the bragging rights. 2017 champions Lámh Dhearg then relinquished their crown to Cargin at the semi-final stage.
Their inter-county championship season was also a short one. A loss to Down in the Anglo-Celt was followed by a round 1 qualifier defeat to Offaly. Conor is currently recovering from a knee injury sustained in that qualifier defeat to Offaly last year and missed the McKenna Cup and indeed will not return to action until well after the league.
The McKenna Cup was an experimental one for Antrim and ended with victory over St Mary's after defeats to Monaghan and Armagh.
“The McKenna Cup was used to get players game time and there were a lot of new faces about. The Monaghan game was a bit disjointed with players coming on and off, and in the Armagh game... you can't expect to give the opposition 10 or 11 points' start and expect to have a chance,” said the 25-year-old.
“Definitely against St Mary's we had a bit more of a settled team, there was less disruption with substitutions, and we were a lot steadier. It was important to get the Armagh game out of our system. When a team gets a hammering, you need to get it out of your system and move on as soon as possible and thankfully we had the game a few days later to put that behind us.”
Antrim got off to a flyer against St Mary's scoring 0-9 without reply before going in at the break 1-10 to 0-3 ahead, Murray accounting for 1-3 of the total with 1-2 coming from play. He picked up an injury whilst scoring the goal and was replaced as a precautionary measure at half-time but will be fit to face Derry in two weeks' time.
The rest of Antrim campaign is made up of away trips to Wexford, Leitrim, Waterford and Limerick and home games against London and Wicklow.
Let the dogfight begin.
Manager Lenny Harbinson will go into the 2019 league campaign with genuine promotion ambitions – but so will the managers of five of the eight teams involved. While all squads evolve from season to season, Antrim seem to have an extremely high turnover of players.
From the starting 15 in the 2017 Ulster SFC v Donegal, Harbinson is missing seven players, and a further four from the starting 15 against Down in last year's Ulster SFC.
Derry are justified favourites to win and will probably top the division but any one of Antrim, Limerick, Wexford or Leitrim could join them in Division 3 next year.
For the third year in a row, Antrim have been dealt a poor hand as regards home fixtures with four of the seven games on the road. That could be crucial in a division that has a number of 50-50 battles – Antrim could foreseeably win six or seven games but just as easily end up winning one or two.
If it is to be the former, then they will need some of the young guns to step up to the mark in the scoring stakes. The more experienced players like Ryan Murray, Paddy McBride and Niall Delargy did the lion's share of the scoring in the McKenna Cup and the issue for Antrim will be where they get enough scores from if/when these players are bottled up.
The first two games are crucial for Antrim. Arguably the two toughest matches – against Derry and Wexford who came down from Division 3 – are up first for the Saffrons If they can take two points from their opening two games then they are in with every chance of promotion.
YOUNG ONES TO WATCH
There are plenty of young players to look out for in the Antrim squad with even the most experienced campaigners capping at the mid-20 mark. Manager Lenny Harbinson took the opportunity to introduce a number of young players during the McKenna Cup and has included Fintan Burke, Owen McKeown, Eoghan McCabe, Darren McCormick and Patrick McCormick in his squad. James Smith who played in the McKenna Cup with QUB is also included.
Creggan's Fintan Burke did not look out of place in his McKenna Cup game time and in the absence through injury of Stephen Beatty and Conor Murray, the Creggan youngster could find himself in the midfield fray for the Saffrons throughout the campaign.
St Brigid's Belfast clubman Smith impressed with QUB in the McKenna Cup and also showed well in a challenge game against UUJ with the county last week. Currently playing with St Brigid's in the Paddy McLarnon Cup, he is a player who knows where the posts are. Eoghan McCabe of St Galls could also push for a starting spot having impressed in all three McKenna Cup outings.
Padraig Nugent, Andrew Hassan, Patrick Branagan, Patrick Gallagher, Ricky Johnston, Fintan Burke, Ruairi McCann (Creggan), Declan Lynch, Michael McCarry, Owen McKeown, Eoghan McCabe, Patrick McBride, James Smith, Stephen Beatty, Mark Sweeney, Eunan Walsh, Matt Fitzpatrick, Kristian Healy, Kevin Quinn, Darren McCormick, Patrick McCormick, Ruairi McCann (Aghagallon), Colum Duffin, Odhran Eastwood, Ryan Murray