Antrim must get over the line against Exiles by whatever means necessary

Saffrons equipped to mix it with bigger counties in Tailteann Cup but must overcome potential banana skin

Dermot McAleese, seen in action during last week's draw with Sligo, will feature for Antrim against London at Corrigan Park on Sunday. Picture Mark Marlow
Dermot McAleese, seen in action during last week's draw with Sligo, will feature for Antrim against London at Corrigan Park on Sunday. Picture Mark Marlow
Tailteann Cup preliminary quarter-final
Antrim v London (Sunday, Corrigan Park, 2pm)

THERE can be no London stalling as Antrim bid to book a Tailteann Cup quarter-final spot on Sunday – but the Saffrons go into the game well warned about their opponents’ ability to surprise.

These preliminary quarter-finals are a strange, almost purgatorial place for ambitious counties to find themselves at this time of year.

Just 12 months ago Down very nearly came unstuck on a sodden Saturday night in Newry, Longford somehow spurning four gilt-edged goal chances before the Mournemen found momentum and marched on to decider. On the same weekend Fermanagh came a cropper against lowly Laois.

It is an easy spot for eyes to be taken off the ball before the really serious stuff kicks in. And few have had the potential banana skin tag attached with greater regularity in recent times than the Exiles.

Last year they came within seconds of stunning Laois at Parnell Park before a late score from goalkeeper Niall Corbet saw the O’Moore County avoid elimination in the Tailteann Cup group stage.

Making progress and laying solid foundations at senior inter-county level represents a huge task in such a transient environment, which is why Michael Maher deserves immense credit for the job done since taking up the reins in 2020.

Most of their Division Four games were competitive affairs - losing by four to Wexford, five to Leitrim, drawing with Tipperary, losing by eight to Longford, beating Waterford by five and losing by seven to Carlow.

A Connacht Championship tanking at the hands of All-Ireland hopefuls Galway can easily be parked given the context of the counties’ current standing.

“We carry this stigma around that the Connacht Championship is the big game for London – it’s not the big game for us,” said Maher earlier this week.

“Our biggest games are against the Offalys, the Antrims, the Limericks, the Tipperarys.”

The Exiles bagged the result of the opening weekend of the Tailteann Cup, ambushing Offaly in Tullamore to claim a first Championship win since 2013.

Inspired by the superb Ciaran Diver, London grabbed the game by the scruff and didn’t let go while the Faithful floundered before a scattering of their own supporters.

There has been little to separate Antrim and Offaly when the same space has been shared in recent years, though it cannot be ignored that London faced a depleted Faithful side once their provincial campaign had run aground.

The nature of that stunning 14-point victory suggested London could smell blood. That Offaly were not fully engaged with the task. The Saffrons are unlikely to fall into that same trap a month down the line.

Maher calls on a settled side once more for the trip to west Belfast, with experienced Laois native Cahir Healy coming in for St Enda’s clubman Fiontan Eastwood, who is ruled out with a fractured ankle.

It is the appearance of another Healy, however, which will be of greater interest to Antrim supporters, with captain Peter named at number 26 in the matchday squad and expected to play some part if required.

A week’s break after the group stage would have afforded a little more time to rest weary bodies, but it leaves Andy McEntee’s men knowing exactly what is required as they eye up the task ahead.

Following a topsy-turvy League campaign beset by injuries, it is only now that the Saffrons are enjoying some continuity of selection. Still missing are long-term absentees like Patrick Finnegan, Ryan Murray, Eoghan McCabe and Adam Loughran, but having the likes of Healy, towering Aghagallon forward Ruairi McCann and Conhuir Johnston back is a major boost at this time of year.

Cargin ace Johnston hadn’t featured all year until coming off the bench in last week’s high-scoring draw against Sligo at Kingspan Breffni. That performance, although not enough to see Antrim straight into the quarter-finals as the Yeatsmen claimed the spot on scoring difference, was a decent barometer of where McEntee’s side stand at the minute.

When they look around at what is left, and how close they came to defeating eventual champions Meath at the semi-final stage last year, the Saffrons should be in no doubt that they have the potential to mix it with any of those remaining.

Last year they proved too strong for a fancied Fermanagh side. Down’s superior fitness may have told on a windswept February day at Corrigan Park but, when they came together in the Ulster Championship two months later, Antrim left Newry wondering what might have been after goal chances came and went with the Mournemen on the rack.

Even last week, Marc Jordan galloped through on 58 minutes but, with the goal at his mercy, blazed wide of the Sligo goal. Despite a shocking League season Kildare remain the danger in the draw but, should they discover a ruthless edge, Antrim are a match for any of those leading contenders left.

Of course, players and management cannot afford to look that far ahead. Getting over the London hurdle on Sunday is all that matters - by whatever means necessary.

Antrim: M Byrne; D Lynch, E Walsh, K Keenan; N Burns, J Finnegan, D McAleese; P McAleer, C Hynds; C McLarnon, P McBride, R McCann (Creggan); R McQuillan, R McCann (Aghagallon), M Jordan.

London: A Walsh; D Rooney, E Walsh, N McElwaine; O Kerr, C Healy, A McLoughlin; S Dornan, L Gallagher; C McKeon, M Carroll, C Diver; J Obahor, D Clarke, S Rafter