Pride at stake but Antrim should take bragging rights in Christy Ring Cup derby clash
Christy Ring Cup round 2A: Antrim v Down (today, Cushendall, 2pm)
ON current form Antrim, riding high with just one defeat all year and two trophies already in the bag, should win comfortably against a Down outfit that is short on resources and struggling to find form. But pride is at stake in Cushendall this afternoon.
While the gutsy Glensmen battled it out for a win at Netwatch Cullen Park against Carlow – their main rivals in this competition – Down bounced back from the disappointment of losing to Armagh in the Ulster Championship by beating Roscommon to set up this derby clash.
Dunloy clubman Gary O’Kane, part of the four-man Antrim management team, accepts that that the Glensmen will be seen as favourites, But he says lessons have been learned from previous meetings with Down.
“It’s Down and Antrim and down through the years there has been a hell of a rivalry,” he said.
“Past performances over the last four or five weeks will go out the window.”
The neighbours met in a hammer-and-tongs Christy Ring Cup semi-final last year and Down gave as good as they got before Antrim pulled away late on to win 1-24 to 23 points.
“Down dominated that game up until the last 15 minutes and they should have won it maybe,” recalled O’Kane.
“We’ll not be going out tomorrow expecting anything less than we got last year, we’ll be going all guns blazing too.”
Antrim’s last three games have produced wins over Carlow (League final), Armagh (Ulster final) and Carlow again (Christy Ring Cup). All three have been bruising encounters and O’Kane says they have taken their toll on the squad.
Antrim will be without inspirational full-forward Neil McManus (getting married) as well as Marty Donnelly, Deaghlan Murphy and Paul Shiels (all injured) today.
“Nothing beats hard games,” said O’Kane.
“But at the same time we’ve had four hard matches for four weeks in-a-row and we’re starting to pick up wee niggling injuries and the boys aren’t getting enough rest.
“But that’s where we want to be so we’re not complaining – if you’re playing the likes of Carlow and coming through it, particularly after not playing that well, it shows that we’re on the right track and it gives us that bit of belief as well.”
After their exertions in Carlow last weekend Antrim’s training has been minimal this week. O’Kane says the “mood is good” in the camp.
“The boys trained well,” he said.
“We spoke to them after training and we told them we wanted everybody to come on Saturday focussed. It’s another game, we’ll take them one at a time and I can see the players’ confidence building.
“There’s nothing beats winning games; it builds confidence, it builds team-morale… At the end of the day, it’s all about moving in the right direction and tomorrow is another step along the way. We’re treating Down as seriously as any team we’ll play this year and we need to go in with the right attitude because we saw last year how they put it up to us. There’s no way we’re underestimating them.”
Down employed Gareth ‘Magic’ Johnston as a targetman full-forward against Roscommon last weekend and the Ballygalget player was involved in several of Paul Sheehan 15 points.
Whether he can have the same impact at Cushendall remains to be seen but manager Marty Mallon will have Eoghan Sands and Conor Mageean fully fit for this afternoon’s clash.
“We’re on our knees with players,” he said after his side saw off the Rossies.
“Eoghan and Conor Mageean had a bad flu, they should've been replaced but we don't have the strength-in-depth to do it. We're working with 20-21 players here and it's tough.”
Last year Antrim were in the doldrums and Down gave them a real scare in Loughgiel. However, a year on the picture has changed – Antrim have found their feet, while Down are struggling.
This Antrim side is physical and focussed and it’s hard to see anything but a home win, and by a healthy margin, tomorrow.