Antrim can edge Westmeath and make Joe McDonagh final
Joe McDonagh Cup Round Four: Antrim v Westmeath (Today, Dunloy, 2pm)
BEFORE the 2018 Irish Cup final between Coleraine and Cliftonville, Oran Kearney made a stark observation about his team’s season.
Coleraine had pushed eventual champions Crusaders right to the wire in the race for the league title. They’d amassed a points tally that would have won the title in six of the last 12 years, and they’d reached their second consecutive Irish Cup final by playing some excellent football.
In the days leading up to the cup final, Kearney rejected the notion – or indeed the compliment – that his Coleraine side had a great season.
“If we win an Irish Cup on Saturday I would class it as a successful season,” Kearney said matter-of-factly.
“I don’t buy into what everybody else says. It’s black or white – you win or lose. Real progress for me this season is putting a cup on the table.”
Giving himself no wriggle room, Kearney was reducing an entire year of graft down to 90 minutes of football.
One game, he said, would determine whether Coleraine were a success or a failure.
In conversation with Paddy Tally earlier this week, he echoed similar sentiments about the Down footballers' year.
They were unlucky not to gain promotion and they emerged from their Championship defeat to Armagh with plenty of credit.
Tomorrow, they face Tipperary in the All-Ireland Qualifiers. It’s make-or-break.
“You can progress and progress so far but you have to have something to show for it,” Tally said.
Kearney and Tally’s words articulate perfectly the essence of competing at elite level.
Elite competitors are described as such because they are able to perform at the cliff edge.
They realise the drop - and yet their discipline and decision-making stays crystal clear.
The Antrim and Westmeath hurlers are standing on the proverbial cliff edge in Dunloy this afternoon (2pm) as they debate who makes it through to the Joe McDonagh final on June 30 and enters the back door to the Liam MacCarthy.
There are a few caveats and permutations, of course, with Westmeath still having a game to play [against Laois] in the round robin series – but the landscape is a much clearer one for Antrim. Another win and they are in the final.
Last year, Antrim were inconsistent within 70-minute games: brilliant for 10 minutes, awful the next 10.
Many of those players have absorbed the lessons of 2018 and graduated to the next level this year where they’re merely inconsistent from one game to the next.
Excellent against Kerry in their McDonagh opener, ropey the next day against Laois, excellent again against Offaly in Tullamore last weekend.
The big challenge for Neal Peden’s players is to stitch together back-to-back performances – one that will be good enough against Westmeath to see them play at Croke Park at the end of the month.
They experienced quite a high in Offaly last Saturday but it’s how quickly their feet touched the ground afterwards.
From that perspective, Westmeath have a slight advantage as they have had an extra week to prepare after coming unstuck against Kerry in Mullingar on May 25.
“We’ve lost one match this year so we’re not going to do many post-mortems on it,” said Westmeath boss Joe Quaid. “We had a bad day at the office [against Kerry] and we’ll reset and refocus and go again.”
Quaid was among the Tullamore crowd to run the rule over Antrim last Saturday.
So he’ll know all about Ryan Elliott’s brilliant short puck-outs to Paddy Burke, something Offaly were desperately slow to counteract, and the twisting, weaving runs of James McNaughton, Nigel Elliott and Keelan Molloy.
He will also have noted how the Antrim defence struggled under the high ball at times in Tullamore, although Westmeath are not as route one as Offaly, preferring to play a more precise style of hurling.
Technically a very tidy unit, Westmeath delivered a near-fatal blow to Antrim’s Joe McDonagh prospects in Mullingar last year with Cillian Doyle and Allan Devine doing the damage on the scoreboard.
Doyle, their talisman, starts at corner-forward, while Devine is named among Quaid’s substitutes for this afternoon’s trip to the Cuchullain’s club, but he is likely to start in place of Niall Mitchell who is alleged to have suffered a broken finger.
Back in February, Westmeath virtually ended Antrim’s slim hopes of promotion out of Division 2A in their Corrigan Park clash, although Cushendall pair Neil McManus and Eoghan Campbell were only introduced midway through the second half which was too late in the day as the visitors had already established a handsome interval lead.
Offaly were full of heart last week but their gameplan was ultimately ragged and Antrim’s greater fitness levels and execution of their own game-plan got them over the line.
Westmeath won’t be so naïve. But Quaid knows he has a job in quelling the fires that the Antrim forwards are capable of starting.
If Ciaran Clarke’s fire is smothered, there’s always Molloy to start another one.
If Molloy’s is smothered, there’s always Nigel Elliott. Or McNaughton. Or Campbell.
Indeed, the freshness the young Dunloy contingent has brought to the table this year has been exhilarating at times.
They have translated their club form onto the inter-county stage, and have shown that they don’t mind dancing on the cliff’s edge.
On the holy ground of Cuchullain's, they'll want to get the job done. And they can.
Antrim (SH v Westmeath): R Elliott; P Duffin, J Dillon, S Rooney; M Donnelly, P Burke (capt), J Maskey; D Kearney, N McKeague; N McManus, R McCambridge, K Molloy; C Clarke, N Elliott, J McNaughton Subs: K McCreevy, E Campbell, E O'Neill, C Boyd, J O'Connell, D McCloskey, K Rice, C McHugh, R Molloy, C Patterson, S Duffin
Westmeath (SH v Antrim): C Lynch; D Egerton, T Doyle, H Greville; C Shaw, A Clarke, P Greville; C Boyle, S Clavin; J Boyle, K Doyle, R Greville; N Mitchell, D McNicholas, C Doyle Subs: A McHugh, A Devine, A Craig, E Corrigan, D O’Reilly, B Doyle, L Varley, J Gilligan, S Power, E Price, D Clinton