Antrim hurlers hope to lay down early marker against League rivals Westmeath in Kehoe Cup final
Kehoe Cup final: Antrim v Westmeath (tomorrow, Abbotstown, 2pm)
ANTRIM left Abbotstown last Sunday with the wind in their sails after a 10-point win over Kildare that included an encouraging mix of dominance, skill and fighting spirit.
If the Glensmen are able hit the motorway feeling the same after tomorrow's final, it will augur well for their promotion prospects because confidence and momentum will be invaluable in a dog-eat-dog Division 2A campaign that includes a clash with tomorrow's opponents Westmeath.
While Antrim were beating Kildare 4-20 to 1-19 in Dublin, Westmeath, beaten Joe McDonagh Cup finalists last year, were powering past Meath at Kinnegad.
Niall Mitchell top-scored with 1-9 and Allan Devine contributed three points so Antrim manager Neal Peden expects the intensity to be cranked up a level when his side lock horns with a side that won all five of their league fixtures last year but missed out on promotion after losing the divisional final to bogey team Carlow.
“We know it's going to be a battle,” said St John's clubman Peden.
“Westmeath is going to be a massive task for us.”
Peden was delighted with his side's performance, particularly in the first half, at Abottstown and he views locking horns with Westmeath as excellent preparation for their League opener against Kerry the following Saturday in Cushendall.
The Antrim rearguard, with student goalkeeper Ryan Elliott a composed presence behind a solid full-back of Stephen Rooney, John Dillon and Ronan Molloy, was particularly impressive against Kildare and the Glensmen will need more of the same against the potent Westmeath attack.
“They have worked so well together,” said Peden after the win against Kildare.
“We've been working on it a lot in training to get them coming out from the back with the ball and looking for that spare man, popping if off and keeping the runs going.
“We did that very well in the first half.
“Ryan is a good 'keeper and he works the area so well and gives you another outlet.”
But the headlines last Sunday belonged to Loughgiel forward James McNaughton who finished with 3-9 including a hat-trick of goals from play – his first for his county.
“We watched James through the season playing for Loughgiel and he has been the key man in the Antrim championship,” said Peden.
“He's only 21 but he has shown that he has stepped up to the mark and he is one of our key men now.”
With Cushendall concentrating on their All-Ireland club semi-final against Connacht champions St Thomas of Galway on February 9 and midfielder Joe Maskey lining out for the St Enda's footballers against An Spideal tomorrow, Peden's squad is not at full strength but he has been encouraged with the energy of the players at his disposal.
“That's our panel,” he said.
“We'll be working hard with the same panel with the same energy and we'll be getting the guys on – the subs are coming on for a reason because people are going to tire and we will get them on.
“We have a good fitness level and we're trying to get to that level where we can work for 70 rather than the 45 we showed there. Kildare are a bit ahead of us (in fitness terms) because we started (training) a bit late and we took the battle to them and physically stood up.
“At half-time we went in very happy but we knew Kildare were going to come out and give us a tough task and we are pleased with the way we reacted. We have been working on getting that wee bit of physicality and I thought we brought that.”
He added: “The League is with these guys and the Cushendall men will give that extra wee kick for the rest of the year.
“They're doing their own thing and working hard at the task they have in hand. We're looking forward to them coming back because they are leaders on the Antrim team.
“It's exciting times. The lads have to show it on the pitch and I was excited today because they really did show it but we have a lot to work on and we need know that.
“They showed flair and they showed commitment and we can't ask for any more. There are a lot of young fellas and it's their first time at this level and we'll keep working hard at.”