Meath man among Antrim new faces to take on Fermanagh
2020 Bank of Ireland McKenna Cup Section B round 2: Antrim v Fermanagh (Ahoghill, 2pm Sunday)
THERE’S a ‘Royal’ presence on the Antrim football panel as they set out on their 2020 season.
Defender Mark Gardiner, of the Simonstown Gaels club in Meath, has been named to start in defence for the Saffrons as they host Fermanagh at Ahoghill tomorrow.
After securing an inter-county transfer, the Meath native will be joined by another newcomer in the other corner of defence, Ben Rice, one of five players from last year’s beaten county finalists Lamh Dhearg. Another man from the Hannahstown club, Marc Jordan, is set to be given a chance at midfield.
County champions Cargin are not represented, but only because the returned attacker Tomas McCann has undergone an operation recently with his recovery period set to last around a month.
There’ll be a new goalkeeper behind Gardiner and Rice, with Oisin Kerr of Creggan donning the senior gloves, but otherwise the Antrim team has a fair amount of recent experience in its ranks, plus yet another Lamh Dhearg man, the 34-year-old Paddy Cunningham back in attack.
However, the Saffrons will have to do without two more players who have followed Matt Fitzpatrick in committing to another football code, with goalkeeper Padraig Nugent and midfielder Stephen Beatty involved with Fitzy’s former soccer side Belfast Celtic.
Fermanagh boss Ryan ‘Ricey’ McMenamin will be hoping for an improved performance after falling away to a seven-point home defeat by Down in their competition opener.
The new man in charge of the Erne County wasn’t too surprised at that sluggish start, though, pointing out: “We probably started back later than the other counties and are a wee bit behind.”
Asked to explain that, the man known for the occasional indiscretion during his playing days replied: “I think we followed the rules! Of what Croke Park dictated.”
More seriously, he explained that he and his management team are taking a longer-term view, aware of what his panel has been through as assistant to previous boss Rory Gallagher:
“Ah look it, it was two intense years we had. The Derrygonnelly lads, they were on their run [in the Ulster club]. You have to give boys their chance and for the last week, we only trained one night and gave the boys the Christmas off. I think that's good too. You have to let men spend time with their families too.
“We tried to find a few players and we might have had six or seven boys making their debuts so look, you had a lot of young boys in there. You needed to give them a go and this is the time of the year for it.”
That bigger picture outlook takes in both League and Championship, with Fermanagh aiming to stay in Division Two at worst in order to avoid a drop into the new ‘Tier Two’ competition in the summer.
Caution explained the absence of last season’s breakout star Ultan Kelm against Down: “It's injuries. We have to take a long-term view. The short-term is great, winning games in the McKenna Cup, or a game, but if Ultan Kelm pulls up then you have major problems. But we will get him back into the fold.”
`The flu’ last weekend ruled out forward Tomas Corrigan, who is back in the senior set-up, part of the reason why young Lee Jones gained early involvement off the bench: “Lee Jones making his debut there…. you have to blood the boys, give them a chance, see what they are about.”
Teenager Brandon Horan started in attack and ‘Ricey’ commented: “We are happy with how he went too, Brandon got on a lot of ball at the start. The pace of it probably got to him but he is young and there are not too many 19-year-olds playing…
“But it is all about the National League. It is the only show in town. I was chatting to [Down manager] Paddy Tally and he was saying, he is probably of the same opinion as me, that it is madness out playing football in December.”
Now we’re into a new year, which always brings new hope for Antrim, but the Saffrons must make home advantage count with a trip to Newry to take on Down in midweek.
Antrim: O Kerr; B Rice, P Gallagher, M Gardiner; D Lynch, J McAuley, P Healy; C Duffin, M Jordan; E Walsh, P McBride, F Burke; P Cunningham, C Small, O Eastwood.
Substitutes: A Hasson, R Johnston, C Garland, R McNulty, R Delargy, K Quinn, N Delargy, R McCann, R Scott, E Fyfe, E Nagle.