Antrim and Fermanagh ladies footballers aiming for All-Ireland final berths
TG4 All-Ireland Junior Championship semi-final: Antrim v Louth (Today, St Tiernach's Park, Clones, 1pm live on LGFA Facebook)
ANTRIM manager Sean O'Kane says his side are in bonus territory as they get ready to take on Louth in this afternoon's TG4 All-Ireland Junior Championship semi-final in Clones, but write them off at your peril.
The Ulster champions are appearing in their first All-Ireland semi-final since 2016, going on to to reach the final before losing out to Longford in the decider while Louth are aiming to make it back-to-back finals and make amends for last year's defeat to Limerick.
Antrim, who last won the All-Ireland junior title in 2012, go into today's game as underdogs despite beating Louth in the Division Four league semi-finals earlier this year. However, that will suit the Saffrons just fine as they went that game in the same position having been well beaten by Louth in the previous league rounds but shocked them with an extra-time victory.
Louth, one of the title favourites all along, will certainly be on all-alert status determined not to fall into the same trap again. Incidentally that defeat to Antrim was their last loss and they have come through the championship so far undefeated. After clinching a second successive Leinster title against Carlow, they saw off their provincial opponents with ease in the group qualifying stages before eeking win by the narrowest of margins that needed a late point from captain Kate Flood to see off the resilient challenge of London, who had led by six points with just seven minutes to play.
Louth will have taken a lot from their comeback win over London.
Players like Eimear and Susan Byrne, Michelle McMahon, Rebecca Carr and Niamh Rice and Flood stood up as they fought their way back into the game.
Lauren Boyle who missed that win is another pivotal player but she should return for today's semi.
Antrim qualified for the knockout stages as group runners-up behind Fermanagh. They defeated Derry in their first outing but after losing to Fermanagh they had the nervy wait for the outcome of the Fermanagh-Derry clash to see where they would sit in the final standings and with the Erne County's 10 point win it was more than enough for them to take second spot and set up today's game with Louth.
In his first year in charge, O'Kane admits that they had not expected to still be playing championship football at the business end of the season.
“Antrim are in bonus territory at the minute but we are determined to make it count and are not just here to make up the numbers. We probably were the on the periphery of making the last four in the championship this year,” he said.
"Louth were always going to be up there, Carlow could have too but dropped away, London are a very good team and they are always there or thereabouts and Fermanagh, having come down from intermediate last year, were going to be looking to reach the semis and final as well.
“If we put in a performance we won't be far away but we need everyone to step up to the plate as Louth will be determined not to slip up and get back to Croke Park for another final."
With this the third meeting between the sides this year, O'Kane knows what to expect from the opposition and that Antrim must be at the top of their game.
“We got hammered by them in the league but then we beat them in the league semi-finals. They will be all out to make amends for that. Louth are one of the favourites, right from the start of the year, for this championship and we know how strong they are,” he said.
“London ran them really close in the qualifying game and people need to realise that London are a good team and they probably deserve more credit that they get.
“We know Louth are beatable but if we don't perform and that is having every player stand up and be counted, we will be out. Last day out against Fermanagh we had too many players who didn't perform and we got beat. There are no more second chances now and we have to grasp this one.”
They must do it without the experienced Mairead Cooper, who picked up a knee injury while training for club championship with St Paul's but other than that O'Kane has a full panel to chose from.
However, Antrim have shown on numerous occasions this year including that league semi and in the Ulster final when they turned over favourites Fermanagh in the second half they have plenty of match-winners led by captain Saoirse Tennyson.
Lara Dahunsi in midfield, Taggart sisters Caitlin and Aoife, Niamh Enright, Michelle Magee, Máiríosa McGourty and Cathy Carey are influential players on the field and O'Kane will look to call on that mix of experience and youth against Louth.
“Preparations haven't been ideal as club championship games have been on the past two weeks and it is difficult getting challenge games at junior level at this time of year although we did play Down,” he added.
“But when we have been together we have been training hard and everyone is up for this game. If you can't get yourself build up for an All-Ireland semi-final regardless of how long ago you last played or what has been happening in between there is something very wrong.”
TG4 All-Ireland Junior Championship semi-final: Fermanagh v London (Today, St Tiernach's Park, Clones, 2.45pm live on LGFA Facebook)”
FERMANAGH and London are expected to serve up a mouth-watering dish in this afternoon's TG4 All-Ireland Junior Championship semi-final at Clones.
There is a place in the All-Ireland decider in Croke Park on September 15 at stake and for London they will be hoping it is a case of third time lucky as for the past two years they have fallen at this last four hurdle.
It was Louth who defeated them last year while the year before Fermanagh denied them after extra-time before going all the way and clinching the All-Ireland title.
There is plenty of Ulster interest in this London team with no fewer than six players from the province now plying their inter-county trade with the Exiles, who are captained by former Tyrone player Catriona McGahan. Nicole Mulholland (Down), Kathryn Canavan (Derry), Donegal duo Denise Doherty and Ciara Thompson are all also part of manager Paddy Bowles' squad and this afternoon Fermanagh will come up against one of their own in Naoimhin Daly.
There can be quite a substantial player turnover with a team like London depending on players' work and study commitments but among this year's squad eight players featured against Louth in last year's semi-final including the Ulster quartet of McGahan, Mulholland, Canavan and Daly along with Fiona Morrissey, Avril Kilkelly, Claire O'Sullivan and Noelle Cocoman. Lisa Cafferky, who scored 2-7 against Louth last year is no longer there, but former Dublin star Hannah Noonan, who is a native Londoner, is back at home and a huge asset to Bowles.
Fermanagh boss Jonny Garrity knows the calibre of players in this London team make them very wary of their opponents who want to reach their first All-Ireland final since 2008.
“We have done what we can on London, had a look at them and we know they have some familiar players and they will represent a stern challenge. They have inter-county experience all over the field - Kerry, Cork, Mayo and then there are the Tyrone and Fermanagh girls too,” said Garrity.
“They are a quality side and despite the turnover of players they have managed to replace quality with quality and this London team is right up there with the teams that reached the semi-finals over the past couple of years.”
After winning the junior championship in 2017, Fermanagh struggled at intermediate level last year - despite having contested the intermediate final four years earlier - with their results culminating in relegation back to junior this year.
Garrity took over the reigns towards the end of last year with a definitive plan help further develop senior football in Fermanagh.
He started with helping them win promotion to Division Three after a league final victory over Antrim and while they missed out on the Ulster junior title, losing to Antrim, they remain on course to reach a second All-Ireland final in three years. However, the junior competition is the most competitive of the three and on their day any of the four remaining teams are well capable of winning.
Whatever happens this afternoon, Garrity is adamant the result will not define Fermanagh's season.
“The most pleasing aspect for us as a management has been to see the players take on the same vision that we have had and how they have come on over the last year.
“We have nothing but the highest regard for the players and how they have bought into where we want to bring Fermanagh football.
“We won't be defined by this result should we fall short against London, it won't represent failure,” he said.
He touches on the small margins and fine lines that will be the difference between winning and losing but with players like Eimear Smyth, Blaithin Bogue and captain Joanne Doonan dangerous in the forward lines, a strong midfield duo of Roisin O'Reilly and Aoife Flanagan and a solid defence marshalled by Aisling Maguire, Courtney Murphy, Molly McGloin and Aine McGovern, Fermanagh possess the players capable of making those percentages Garrity talks about.
“This will be a game of small percentages and we will aim to win our battles and picking up those percentages over the course of the hour. We have seen a lot of progress even over the course of the All-Ireland series and we are in the position we have been all year,” he said.
“We go into this game with a lot confidence but have total respect for London.
“It's important to concentrate on this game and try not to think beyond it but I know that can be difficult when you reach an All-Ireland semi-final.
“It's about staying grounded and concentrating on the little things that will help take us to victory and if we do that we will get the performance we need and the result will take care of itself.”