Down have won 10 out 10 in Newry under Conor Laverty but Antrim intend to end winning streak

Wicklow show how every dog can have their day when it comes to Championship time

Down's Danny Magill celebrates his second half goal against Clare. Pic Philip Walsh
Down's Danny Magill celebrates his goal against Clare. Pic Philip Walsh
Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Down v Antrim (Saturday, Pairc Esler, 6pm)

THE demise of Westmeath in the Leinster Championship opener at the hands of unfancied and relegated Wicklow will have kept Down minds on their work this week.

Fresh from beating Down in the Division Three final, Westmeath were expected to have too much for a Garden County outfit they had beaten by six points on February 18, the same day Down beat Antrim by nine in Belfast.

However, Oisin McConville’s Wicklow turned the tables last weekend and Antrim will hope to do exactly the same to Down on Saturday night.

It’ll be easier said than done because, apart from their issues with Westmeath, Down romped to promotion this season. Only two other counties (Armagh and Donegal) remained unbeaten up to the League finals and only Dublin (154 points) scored more than the Mournemen.

Saval clubman Pat Havern, a reliable free-taker, amassed 45 points in the League – only Shane McGuigan (53) and Cavan’s Paddy Lynch (51) scored more. Burly full-forward Havern had consistent support from Liam Kerr (2-14), Odhran Murdock (4-8) and others including raiding corner-back Ceilum Doherty who didn’t feature in the first two games of the campaign but finished with 3-6 from his pacey counterattacks out of defence.

Despite their loss to Westmeath in the League final, Down must fancy their chances of winning on home soil and, if Armagh beat Fermanagh, having an opportunity to avenge the hammering they took from their neighbours at a soaked Clones last season.

They have to get past Antrim first and they didn’t have too much trouble doing that when they met the Saffrons at Corrigan Park in February. Down won by double-scores that day (1-15 to 1-6) and kicked a dozen wides too.

Antrim’s Dominic McEnhill scores a penalty during Sunday’s Allianz Football League Division 3 match at Corrigan Park in Belfast.
Dominic McEnhill was Antrim’s top-scorer in the National League

Antrim had started the League with two wins but that loss to Down began a four-game losing streak and Andy McEntee’s men needed to beat the aforementioned Wicklow in their final game to keep themselves clear of the relegation trapdoor.

Antrim were well beaten at this stage by Armagh in Ulster last year but when they got motoring in the Tailteann Cup they were scoring for fun. The Saffrons gave punters serious ‘bang for their buck’ but the problem was that, as fast as they were scoring at one end, they were conceding even faster at the other.

Andy McEntee has tightened up his defence this season. Antrim shipped 154 scores in Division Three in 2023 and reduced that to 106 this year but they aren’t finding scores as easy to come by now.

Injuries have played a part in that and although Dominic McEnhill led the way with 2-14, Patrick McBride (0-13) is the only other player to hit double-figures this season. The unfortunate loss of Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann (scorer of 2-1 in Newry last season) to illness is a hammerblow to the Saffrons who are also without skipper Peter Healy who remains sidelined by the stress fracture he picked up as Antrim pushed eventual champions Meath all the way in last year’s brilliant Tailteann Cup semi-final.

Eoghan McCabe, Patrick McCormick and Adam Loughran are all missing from the side that started that game and injured duo Ryan Murray and Conor Stewart are also ruled out.

Without those players, the form of last summer has deserted Antrim and it is difficult to see them causing an upset at Pairc Esler against a side that has won 10 out of 10 (seven League, one Ulster Championship and two Tailteann Cup) on home turf during Laverty’s watch.

Antrim’s running game should suit Down multi-pronged system and Wicklow’s win over Westmeath was a timely warning for the Mournemen to banish complacency and play to their potential. If they do so you’d expect them to make it 11 tomorrow.

Down's Ceilum Doherty and Clare's Shane Griffin in action at Páirc Esler Newry. Pic Philip Walsh
Down's Ceilum Doherty on the attack at Páirc Esler. Pic Philip Walsh
Tactical Take

IT’S all about turnovers, transition into lightning counterattacks and scores for the Mournemen and they are very good at what they do. Conor Laverty has utilised the pace and running power in the team by packing a well-organised defence with speedy runners like Ceilum Doherty and Daniel Guinness who were both regular scorers throughout the League.

In the League meeting between these counties, Antrim struggled to make any headway through Down’s defensive system. The Mournemen flooded numbers back behind the ball, soaking up space and blocked scoring routes. Antrim didn’t have the craft, pace or patience to break them down and they were picked off throughout the game and then killed off in the final quarter.

Laverty will hope for the same again on home soil and, after a disappointing result in the League final, Down will want to show that they are a level above Antrim to convince themselves and their supporters that they can make further headway in the Ulster Championship and perhaps return to the Sam Maguire competition which was once their domain.

So there is a certain amount of pressure on Down and they will have to cope with it. Laverty will be delighted to have Barry O’Hagan back on the bench for this game. The Clonduff clubman is one of several attacking options including Shealan Johnston, James Guinness and John McGovern but Caolan Mooney and Andrew Gilmore are not included in the squad.


IN the final round of League games, Clare allowed Down to get short kickouts away and then couldn’t cope with the pace and energy when the Mournemen ran at them. Antrim can’t fall into the same trap and need to at least play a mix between pressing John O’Hare’s kickouts and dropping back.

Down aren’t the biggest team so the long ball is always an option for Antrim but the loss of Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann robs them of a physical presence in attack which worked well for them when they visited Newry in the League last year and could have won.

If Antrim opt to mirror Down’s system the game will develop into a possession-based affair with plenty of hand-passing chains. Against a tight Down defence the Saffrons will need to be patient and work the ball across the pitch before releasing the likes of Eunan Walsh and Marc Jordan to punch holes in the Mourne rearguard.

In McCann’s absence, Antrim fans will pin their hopes on Dominic McEnhill, who started the season with a match-winning 1-6 against Limerick. Ryan McQuillan can play the full-forward role and Patrick McBride weighed in with useful scores as the League progressed but Antrim struggled in front of the posts at times and they’ll need to find a ruthless touch to stay in this game. The longer they do the better their chances become.

Antrim’s Marc Jordan with a shot at goal during Sunday’s Allianz Football League Roinn 3 game at Corrigan Park in Belfast
Marc Jordan is quick and direct and always in the game for Antrim
Key Battle
Daniel Guinness (Down) v Marc Jordan (Antrim)

SPARKS will fly if these Belfast natives are matched up. Lamh Dhearg clubman Jordan is a Don Quixote-style cavalier who loves nothing better than bombing forward. His driving runs have the potential to open up the best defences if he sees enough ball.

The same is true of Guinness who has scored 2-8 for Down this year as well as winning a steady supply of frees for Pat Havern.

Jordan is an attacking outlet for Antrim and Guinness could be used to bottle him up while Antrim boss Andy McEntee will be well aware of the threat the fleet-footed Carryduff clubman possesses.