Antrim SFC: Group stages to conclude but drama to reach fever pitch

Lamh Dhearg's Conor Murray grabbed three points in their five-point win over Portglenone. Picture Philip Walsh.
Lamh Dhearg's Conor Murray grabbed three points in their five-point win over Portglenone. Picture Philip Walsh.

Final day permutations, it's quite the entertainment, although the term neutral doesn’t fully capture it. On these sporting occasions it loosely translates into one who can get a kick from the highs and get a laugh off demise. A safety blanket of separation means the moral high ground.

Club football is up close and personal. It’s not that neutral at all.

Back on the final day of the intercounty SFC group stage, Shane Walsh and John Heslin were probably number crunching among various other things when their last gasp efforts to salvage something sailed wide. 

When the final whistle goes, however, no one is pestering Carol Vorderman anymore. You’re in or you’re out. Fair play. Tough luck. Agony. Ecstasy. A kick of the ball goes from meaning nothing to everything in a split second.

This weekend, the Antrim SFC gets a taste of the finest of margins. With that comes scapegoats. With that comes heroes.

The pre-match hysteria suits the mathematicians. The likes of Portglenone won’t waste their time swaying side to side hesitating over the possibles. Lose and they may qualify, but it’s a lot more simple than that. Win and they increase those chances, although it wouldn’t guarantee progression.

Manager John McKeever, in an interview with Kieran Lynch in this week’s Gaelic Life, wasn’t in the mood to cross the fingers before the work is done:

“We know that we need to win to progress through to the knockout rounds”, he said.

As league champions, you don’t go out to lose games. Water is wet. The Pope is a Catholic. The sky is blue, in most countries anyway.

Should Lámh Dhearg make it three wins from three, they will be guaranteed to top Group 2, opening the door for a win (over Ahogill) to guarantee second spot for Portglenone. If St Enda’s have any intention of curtailing the former, they will need to keep an eye on Antrim wing-back Marc Jordan, who struck 1-3 in their opening day win over Ahogill.

Fellow intercounty stars Declan Lynch and Ben Rice have also had their shooting boots on to date, and Lámh Dhearg will be confident they will be capable of securing top spot when Group 2 concludes on Saturday.

On Sunday, attention turns to Group 3 and 4. The nature of the three team pools means that St Galls and St Brigids will have the weekend off. Aghagallon’s trip to Moneyglass will perhaps draw most attention, with both teams scrapping it out for second place having suffered respective two and eight point defeats at the hands of St Brigids.

Things are a little more negative for St Gall’s, who are consigned to bottom spot before the action begins on Sunday. A one-point defeat to Dunloy the last day out was their final group match, having been beaten on a 1-12 0-10 scoreline in Creggan in their opener.

All that means score difference is in Creggan’s hands in the unlikely scenario of a draw, but it’s very much a case of winner takes all at Cuchullians-Dunloy.

Whether you’re on the fence or firmly planted either side, it promises to be a weekend full of drama. The county, and beyond, are watching.