Tyrone will show no quarter against Antrim at the Athletic Grounds
Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Tyrone v Antrim (today, The Athletic Grounds, 6pm, live on BBC NI)
NO-ONE wants to see a slaughter but let’s be honest; it’s hard to envisage anything other than ‘Tyrone by a cricket score’ in this evening’s quarter-final.
The challenge for Antrim is to show defiance and prove their doubters wrong and genuine Gaels everywhere will be delighted if they do that. But the reality is that the margin of their defeat may ultimately rest with how much effort the Red Hands put into the last quarter of a game which could well have been decided by then.
Hope springs eternal, but it is in short supply, however the Saffrons should take some encouragement from Derry’s performance against Tyrone, last year’s losing All-Ireland finalists, in the Ulster preliminary round a fortnight ago.
The Oak Leafers had been written off (though not to the same extent as Antrim) going into that game but they got their noses in front in the second half only for Tyrone to overhaul them and pull away late in the game.
Antrim, let’s not forget, got to within a point of Derry in the opening round of Division Four fixtures and could well have won the game at Corrigan Park. Derry squeaked out a 1-10 to 1-9 victory and went on to win their next seven in-a-row and the Division Four title.
Meanwhile, Antrim could were unable to recover from that loss. They were beaten in three of their next four games and only escaped the ignominy of finishing bottom of the entire NFL pile thanks to wins over Wicklow and Limerick in their last two games.
The League was enough for some of their players and when it was over they headed out through the gates of the field and didn't come back. Manager Lenny Harbinson has had to bring in young hopefuls to replace them - Harbinson is a capable manager who guided St Gall’s to the All-Ireland club title in 2010 but the turnover of personnel has made a challenging task enormously difficult for him.
The stars of the St Gall’s sides that dominated the Antrim Championship from the early noughties until 2014 have shuffled off the inter-county stage and there are no representatives from the Milltown club in the squad for this evening’s clash. County champions Cargin aren’t represented either, while the Johnston brothers, Martin and Ricky, are the only players from Kickham’s Creggan (county finalists last year) and there are four from the Lamh Dhearg club.
Some observers point to a dip in quality in the Antrim Championship these days and, despite the welcome success of Ulster intermediate champions St Enda’s, the lack of progress on the field and the lack of a field (Casement Park) means the county remains trapped under a dark cloud.
Meanwhile, west across Lough Neagh the skies are blue. While Antrim were finishing third in Division Four, Tyrone ended up third in Division One – 23 places separated the counties.
Antrim were out of last year’s Championship in early June while Tyrone went all the way to the All-Ireland final, so in terms of experience, form, pedigree and quality the Red Hands hold all the trump cards this evening and no Casement means the Saffrons don’t even have home advantage.
Tyrone’s performance against Derry will surely have brought a few players and fans back down to earth though. Shortly after Shane McGuigan lashed the ball past Niall Morgan, the Oak Leafers got their noses briefly in front and it took an even better goal from Darren McCurry to steady the Tyrone ship near the finish.
Can Antrim do the same? It’s highly unlikely. That Derry side had men in their ranks who had tested and bested some of the top club players in the country at senior level with Slaughtneil and youngsters who’d had success with their county at underage level.
Antrim cannot match that calibre and although they have talented players in Paddy McBride, Matt Fitzpatrick and Ryan Murray who are capable of conjuring up the score of tonight’s game, they will surely not see enough of the ball to really threaten Tyrone.
In the end, the Red Hands had six points to spare against Derry and manager Mickey Harte was able to spring three quality forwards – McCurry, Connor McAliskey and Kyle Coney – from the bench to make sure his side got the job done at Healy Park.
Derry gave them their fill of it for large passages of the game and Antrim will be determined to follow suit, pack their half of the field, ride out the first 10 minutes and then look to settle and stay in it. They have to believe that they can and the longer they remain competitive, the longer their legs and lungs will last.
However, Tyrone have the edge all over the pitch and surely only complacency can undermine a very comfortable win for them.
So far in an entertaining Ulster Championship we’ve seen Division Four Derry put it up to Division One Tyrone and Division Three’s Down almost beating Armagh (Division Two) but both underdogs gave optimists something to work with and you can’t say the same about Antrim.
Tyrone have the defenders, and the defensive structure, to isolate Antrim’s threats and in the likes of Peter Harte and Niall Sludden the ball-carriers to punch holes in the Antrim rearguard and supply Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly up front.
The Saffrons have worked hard in the build-up and recently decamped to Bundoran for a weekend training camp. Expect them to be fit and well set-up but they just don’t come up against teams like Tyrone in Division Four and the longer this game progresses, the more one-sided it will become.
Red Hand fanatics apart, no-one wants to see Antrim embarrassed and anything less than a double-digit defeat will be job-done for them.