Antrim defender Niall Delargy looking forward to Tyrone test
FOR many reasons, Antrim's Niall Delargy might have preferred to face Derry this weekend rather than Tyrone in the Ulster SFC quarter-final.
Being from Portglenone, the Oak Leafers are his derby rivals, and he works in Kilrea, in the marketing department of software firm Acorn IT Solutions.
From his time at university, first at Queen's, doing a Business Management degree, then a Masters at Ulster University, he knew and played alongside some current/ recent Derry stars, such as Brendan Rogers, Ciaran McFaul, and Niall Toner.
Derry would also have been more beatable. Antrim probably should have achieved that outcome in the opening round of Division Four, but instead lost by a point.
Yet, having said all that, the 25-year-old is still relishing the prospect of Saturday night's match against the Red Hands in Armagh, after they finished strongly to defeat Derry by six points in the Ulster SFC preliminary round.
"Whoever we were going to play in the Ulster Championship we were always going to be underdogs, so all we can do is focus on ourselves, get our own game-plan right, get our match-ups right.
"It's going to be a big occasion, Tyrone always bring a big crowd – I'm looking forward to it."
Even at 25, Delargy is "one of the more experienced players on the panel; this last year or two more of the older ones have stepped away. Younger ones have come in to replace them. It's basically a brand new team from the 2009 days."
That, a decade ago, was the last time Antrim reached the Ulster final, playing a Tyrone team who had been in (and won) the previous year's All-Ireland decider.
It's five years since the Saffrons even won a provincial SFC game, suffering opening defeats since then to Fermanagh (twice), Donegal, and then Down last year.
Delargy would love to rectify that: "In 2014 we beat Fermanagh down in Brewster, but there are very few standing from that team. This is a chance to prove ourselves against good opposition.
"It's obviously disappointing with the whole Casement situation that we don't have a home venue. As footballers you always want to test yourselves, we're playing against [last year's] All-Ireland Finalists…We're keen to play Tyrone and challenge ourselves."
Realistically, though, Antrim would have a much better chance of success in a tiered championship, as Delargy reluctantly acknowledges:
"By the sounds of it, it does seem to be incoming, for some sort of change. This is my fifth year on the panel and we've won one Ulster Championship game and one qualifier.
"We train the same amount and have the same commitment levels as the other sides but we don't really get the big days out. It would be good to end the year with a big day and the chance of silverware, I suppose.
"I don't think many players want to just play games for the sake of it, you want to have the chance of games in front of big crowds. If you look back at the Tommy Murphy [Cup], it was a bit of a joke in the end.
"It's about finding the right structure to get the crowds, before some of the bigger qualifiers maybe, Super Eights and so on. It looks like something that is definitely going to come in."
The current format arguably works against Antrim, with the limited prospect of victory prompting some players to head abroad for the summer instead, leading to a lack of continuity in the Saffrons squad.
"Unfortunately [that does happen]," says Delargy. "Hopefully that can change. For various reasons people step off the panel. We train four or five nights a week, the same as Tyrone, Donegal, Monaghan, it's a big commitment for the boys who haven't got the same rewards. Everyone has family, jobs, but we don't get the same benefits.
"Luckily we don't have too many fellas who have left so far. Obviously it's a big incentive for fellas if you can prolong your summer.
"You train all year for the big days out, the warm summer days, and the hard pitches, so it would be good to get a couple more games."
If that's to be the case this year, in Ulster or more likely in the All-Ireland qualifiers, Antrim will have to display mental strength.
That unfortunate opening League defeat to Derry hit them hard, and Antrim failed to challenge for promotion.
"They got the last score to win it. That took the wind out of our sails for the next couple of games," admits Delargy.
"Of course, it was disappointing that it took us a few games to recover. I wouldn't say it was just about mental strength, we made simple mistakes in other games too. It's about learning from that for next year and trying to push out of Division Four.
"Coming off the League campaign, it was disappointing to stay in Division Four."
You have to be an optimist to be an Antrim footballer, but at least there are green shoots of recovery, including the 'Gaelfast' project in Belfast.
Delargy is positive about the efforts of county officials: "In other years you might have heard players blaming the county board but, to be honest, they've been brilliant for us the past few years. Anything we've wanted, they've got it for us, there have been no stumbling blocks there.
"'Gaelfast' could take a few years, but the city especially is a sleeping giant – maybe players have gone to soccer or other sports in the past. Hopefully the county will reap the benefits in a number of years".
For now, Tyrone may be too tough a test to pass, but Antrim will keep on looking forward.