GAA Football

Down and Antrim are ready to rumble in U20 Championship showdown

Down U20 captain Shane Annett raises the Leo Murphy Cup last week in Armagh Picture by Philip Walsh.

Ulster U20 Football Championship preliminary round: Down v Antrim (Tomorrow, Clones, 11.45am)

IT’S an early start for both Down and Antrim in Clones tomorrow morning – but at least the two U20 squads are being afforded a stage they deserve.

With the county minors displaced, this intriguing Ulster U20 preliminary round clash will act as a curtain-raiser to this year’s Ulster senior final.

It’s a genuine pity the U17 grade is now played far away from the media spotlight while not everybody is a fan of the new calendar space for the relatively new U20 grade.

But Conor Deegan and Hugh McGettigan’s respective squads won’t be complaining as they get the chance to sample Ulster final day and playing in front of a bulging St Tiernach’s Park.

Earlier this week, Antrim attacker Tiarnan McAteer made all the right noises by suggesting his team-mates will blossom on the big stage.

After all, a fair chunk of the Antrim squad have climbed the MacRory Cup summit in the last couple of years, with Creggan Kickhams clubman McAteer experienced St Patrick’s Day glory just two years ago with St Mary's Magherafelt, while also featuring in last season’s senior county final where Kevin Madden’s men were pipped by Cargin.

McAteer is joined in the Antrim U20 squad by former ‘Convent’ and Creggan club-mate Liam Quinn, a player the Down defence will be keen to contain in Clones tomorrow.

Add in Aghagallon contingent of Aidan Mulholland, Jamie Lamont, Jack Lenehan, Adam Loughran, Luke Mulholland and Mark McAfee who experienced MacRory and Hogan Cup glory with St Ronan’s last year and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the days of Antrim’s underage football teams turning up on the big days and being well beaten are gone.

McGettigan has retained most of this group since U14 level. They’re a squad that doesn’t suffer from an inferiority complex.

Down may have won the inaugural Leo Murphy Cup last week but Antrim exited the group stages unbeaten by holding Ulster champions Derry and Cavan to draws while defeating Louth.

The wily McGettigan couldn’t heap enough praise on tomorrow’s opponents at Monday night’s Ulster U20 Championship launch in Garvaghey, stating that Deegan’s team could be the start of a Down revival having watched them ease past Cavan by six points in the Leo Murphy final the previous Saturday.

While it’s an age-old tactic of talking up the opposition, there is some merit to what McGettigan was saying.

Finn McIlroy is a Down full-back in waiting, Mayobridge defender Shane Annett is another capable of making the senior breakthrough in a couple of seasons while Ross Carr jr has made massive improvements over the last 12 months.

But the greatest danger to Antrim’s provincial prospects tomorrow is the brilliant form of attackers Liam Kerr of Burren and Seamus Loughran of Ballyholland – the pair sharing 1-7 in last week’s Murphy decider in Armagh.

Despite this twin threat, Antrim will fancy their chances and have enough big-game experience.

Whether they have enough physical power, though, could be their ultimate downfall in a game that is likely to go right to the wire.

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