Derry will struggle to prevent Antrim making it eight Ulster U21 hurling titles in-a-row
Ulster U21 Hurling Championship final: Antrim v Derry (Wednesday, Loughgiel, 7.15pm)
ALTHOUGH Derry boss Tom McLean is looking forward to Wednesday's final, he is fully aware his team face a big task to stop Antrim making it eight titles in-a-row at this grade.
The Saffrons made the decider following a fairly testing encounter away to Down. In what was a high-scoring and enjoyable game in Ballycran, Antrim got their fill of it for most of the first-half before a scoring burst just before the break pushed them seven clear.
Down did fight back to cut the gap to three at one point, but Antrim eventually won by six. Among their impressive performers on the night were Saul McCaughan, Domhnall Nugent, Maol Connolly and James O'Connell.
"I keep saying this and people think you’re just saying it because you’re playing them, but Antrim are the team that everybody has to beat, as far as it goes in Ulster," insisted McLean.
"They have won it for this last seven years and it’ll be no different tomorrow night - we’re going to be up against it, but you can only give it your best on the night and see how it goes. Any time you go down into Ballycran to play any Down team - should it be minor, U21 or senior - and you come out of it with a win, you’re going well. And they did that, so they’ll be on a high too - the match is in Loughgiel and there’ll be a few of the Loughgiel players on the team, so it’ll be hard going."
For their part, Derry put in just as catching a display in overcoming Armagh in their semi-final. Brian Cassidy smashed home the first of their three goals after just 13 seconds after being fed brilliantly by fellow goal scorer Cormac O'Doherty. And with free taker Deaglan Foley in great form - he stroked over eight dead balls and nine points in all - there was a healthy margin of 15 points between the teams at the finish.
McLean was pleased with the efforts of his young charges in a physical contest, which Cavan whistler James Clarke let flow: "It was a good enough display," said the Dunloy man.
"I suppose it’s hard to know when you come up against U21 teams - you don’t know what the opposition is going to be like. And Armagh had been going well in senior this year and we had a bit of a journey down to Crossmaglen for the match. But the fellas performed well and that’s all you can ask for on the night."
As for that whirlwind start and the big score of 3-19 the team ran up, the manager said attacking, direct hurling was how he liked his teams to play: "Well, that would be my way of looking at it anyway," he said.
"Hurling, I think, when you start trying to bring in systems - you only complicate it. Get the ball and get it up to the forward line as quick as you can and see what you can get - and try and pick off your scores."
A triumph on Wednesday would be most welcome in what has been a miserable year for Derry hurling. The win against Armagh has already given them a boost: "It was nice there for the likes of Mark McGuigan, who’s the captain there this year of the U21s, and Deaglan Foley, who had been with the seniors all year - it’s nice for them to finish up on the winning team for a change," said McLean.
The suspicion is Derry are up against it, however. Although they are potent enough up front and are well-organised by established Slaughtneil man Mark McGuigan in defence, they will struggle to keep a very decent Antrim forward unit at bay.
Derry were without Brendan Lavery, Padraig Turner and Sean Francis Quinn last time out, but the trio should return, while for Antrim, senior panelists Conor Johnston, James Connolly and Ryan McCambridge are unavailable.