GAA Football

Antrim U20 football boss Hugh McGettigan banking on MacRory Cup experience to topple Down

Antrim U20 boss Hugh McGettigan leads his players into this year's provincial U20 series against Down on Sunday Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

ANTRIM’S U20 football boss Hugh McGettigan is banking on his side's MacRory and Hogan Cup winning experience and the continuity in selection to knock Leo Murphy Cup champions Down off their perch at Clones on Sunday.

The sides clashed in last summer’s provincial Championship opener in Newry with Down eventually slaying Antrim on a 4-15 to 3-13 scoreline.

McGettigan has been able to retain a high percentage of the current crop of Antrim players since U14 and the squad has been bolstered by MacRory Cup winning players from St Mary’s Magherafelt (2017) and St Ronan’s, Lurgan (2019).

Former St Mary’s forwards Liam Quinn and Tiarnan McAteer are key players in McGettigan’s U20 panel, while the Aghgallon contingent Aidan Mulholland, Jamie Lamont, Jack Lenehan, Adam Loughran, Luke Mulholland and Mark McAfee helped St Ronan’s land the MacRory and Hogan Cups in 2018.

In 2017, the Antrim minors took Donegal’s scalp in Ulster with McAteer and Quinn featuring heavily on the score-sheet.

McGettigan, though, knows the size of the task awaiting his side on Sunday – their Championship encounter acting as a curtain-raiser to the Ulster SFC final between Donegal and Cavan – and was full of praise after watching Conor Deegan’s Down side clinch the inaugural Leo Murphy Cup by overcoming Cavan in last weekend’s decider.

“Clones is a great stage for our boys,” McGettigan said.

“We played in Clones two years ago before an Ulster semi-final and it was a big occasion. With Cavan and Donegal playing in this year’s Ulster final it’s a massive occasion again, but we’ll have to put that to one side and concentrate on facing Down.

“We watched them beat Cavan in the final last Saturday. I think this Down team is the start of the Down revival.

“They were unlucky last year. They beat us and then they were 10 points up against Derry in the Ulster U20 semi-final and they let it slip.”

The Mournemen defeated Monaghan, Meath and Armagh in the group stages of the Leo Murphy before easing to a six-point win over Cavan in The Athletic Grounds.

Antrim, meanwhile, drew with Derry and Cavan before edging out Louth in Ardee.

“This is basically the development squad we took at U14 – so we’ve stayed with them right through,” said McGettigan.

“That helps knowing these guys… We’ve had a good minor side recently too, a very skilful group and we’ve a lot of lads from St Mary’s Magherafelt that have MacRory Cup medals and we’ve lads who have Hogan medals with St Ronan’s, so there are a lot of good footballers.

“It’s very difficult to know but I think a lot of them will make very good senior county players down the line. It might take a couple of years to develop them but there’s a good blend among the squad.”

St Enda’s, Glengormley ace Eoin Nagle is battling back to full fitness but his club-mate Ethan Gibson is studying in England and is unavailable for the county’s U20 straight knock-out campaign.

McGettigan, a high-respected figure in Antrim GAA, also sees improvements in the county in recent times.

The much discussed Gaelfast project is still in its infancy, the Dunsilly Centre of Excellence and Corrigan Park are primed for upgrades, the Saffron Business Forum continues to grow from strength to strength while the county executive, led by Ciaran McCavana, is building on the foundations left by former officials Collie Donnelly and Terry Reilly.

“You’ve got to be happy with the direction of the county but there are a lot of balls in the air that you have to juggle,” said McGettigan.

“Obviously being a dual county is a major challenge for us because we’ve to put in a massive effort to try and get up to the level where we think we should be at in hurling. It’s the same with the football. Unlike any other county in Ulster we are really batting on two fronts and because of the investment that has to be put into the hurling means you have to work twice as hard as anybody else.”

While Antrim teams have struggled on the provincial and national stage, the St Mary’s CBGS schoolteacher no longer buys the notion that there is apathy towards playing for the county.

“I don’t remember any time when there wasn’t a prestige attached to wearing the Antrim jersey, especially at underage level. When it comes to senior level, life is tough up there, especially if they’re not winning, it’s tough.

“But I think there’s always been a great pride in wearing the Antrim jersey. It’s a bit of a fallacy to say that people didn’t want to wear it. There might be mitigating circumstances why we don’t get every player out, but there is a real sense of pride in playing for Antrim, especially among this U20 squad.”

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