Time for Antrim and Kildare hurlers to get down to business in Joe McDonagh Cup shoot-out
Joe McDonagh Cup relegation/promotion play-off: Antrim v Kildare (today, Armagh Athletic Grounds, 12.45pm)
JUST as the GAA hierarchy were beginning to breathe out again over the ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ social media campaign, the Kildare and Antrim hurlers rolled another incendiary under Croke Park’s table on Thursday night.
In a joint statement, both squads argued the Joe McDonagh Cup promotion/relegation match, scheduled for this afternoon in Armagh, should not be taking place at all and that GAA did not give due consideration to player welfare.
It’s hard to imagine a Kilkenny or Galway or Clare being asked to play an All-Ireland final one week and a promotion/relegation match seven days later.
But that’s the scenario the Kildare hurlers find themselves in.
The statement criticised the GAA's tampering with the McDonagh Cup and Christy Ring competitions ahead of next year.
With the GAA intent on reducing the competition’s numbers from six to five next season, the Meath hurlers, who finished bottom of the Joe McDonagh Cup table, will automatically drop down a rung.
But rather than Kildare gaining automatic promotion, they will face a play-off against Antrim today who finished second from bottom in the inaugural McDonagh Cup.
Both teams have justifiable grounds to be playing in next season’s Joe McDonagh Cup, but today’s loser in the Athletic Grounds won’t.
It has been a bad week for the GAA – but it will get much worse for either Antrim or Kildare after today’s encounter.
“What the GAA need is a bit of common sense,” said Kildare boss Joe Quaid.
“If common sense had prevailed this week there would be no problems. Someone should have looked ahead. In 30 degrees heat, we’re being asked to go out and play the most important match in those conditions when there is absolutely no rush to playing this match.
“If somebody would have looked at the forecast, looked at the scheduling... We will be playing our sixth match in seven weeks. How is that conducive to player welfare?
“We weren’t calling for Antrim or Meath to be relegated….”
The Lilywhites beat London 3-19 to 1-11 in Croke Park last weekend to win the Christy Ring, while Antrim last played on June 9, a home defeat to Kerry in the McDonagh Cup.
The Limerick native added: “Fair play to Antrim because this can affect Antrim as much as it can affect us.
“If we beat Antrim tomorrow they’re down in the Christy Ring next year and hurling doesn’t need an Antrim team down in the Christy Ring.
“Kildare and Antrim need to be playing Joe McDonagh. But now both teams need to concentrate on the match. What’s to our disadvantage is the venue especially after a week out from winning the All-Ireland at our level and now playing this game – it’s wrong.”
Quaid said it was pointless to lobby for an extra week’s rest to prepare for Kildare’s “most important” game of the season.
“It was different for the [Kildare] footballers because they were willing to play the fixture and were entitled to home advantage. But you can’t appeal the fixture.
“I encouraged the players to enjoy winning the Christy Ring last weekend but the match tomorrow, in the greater scheme of things, is a more important game than last week’s final.
“If we lose against Antrim it will definitely de-value the Christy Ring win a bit because of the quick turnaround.
“But we won the pinnacle of the competition we were in and that should be that.”
It’s impossible to determine whether releasing a hard-hitting statement with Antrim will distract the Kildare hurlers.
Quaid insists it won’t.
“I gave the players advice on things and it looks to me they took the right option.”
While the Lilywhites were surprise winners of this year’s Christy Ring, there have been more than a few eyebrows raised as to how Antrim find themselves perilously close to losing their McDonagh status.
They punched above their weight in Division 1B this season, pushing Galway and Dublin all the way, and up until their penultimate McDonagh Cup game against Westmeath, they still harboured hopes of reaching the McDonagh Cup final.
But a third defeat in a row – to Kerry – pushed them into unwanted territory.
Antrim have produced a string of schizophrenic performances throughout their McDonagh Cup campaign. Brilliant in patches, awful in others.
Last year, they found Kildare a tough nut to crack in a Division 2A clash in Cushendall, the Glensmen eventually winning by two. Eight of that squad played in last Saturday's Ring final.
A substitute in Cushendall last March, Jack Sheridan was Kildare’s match-winner last weekend, bagging 2-2.
James Burke is another one to watch as he landed eight points at Croke last Saturday.
For Antrim, today represents their biggest test of character in 2018.
The hope from Antrim point of view is that Neil McManus can squeeze another memorable 70 minutes out of himself and those around him to preserve their McDonagh Cup status.
Dunloy’s fleet-footed pair Keelan Molloy and Eoin O’Neill will add much-needed freshness to the attack.
Antrim should have just about enough to overcome Kildare in a game that shouldn’t really be taking place at all.