Michael McCann's likely absence shouldn't stop Antrim claiming Louth scalp
Allianz National Football League Division Four North: Louth v Antrim (Today, Haggardstown, 3pm)
FOR the Tyrone contingent, this is such a weird head space to be in. In normal times, Mickey Harte’s statuesque presence would be found on the sidelines of Healy Park and Enda McGinley perched high in the glass-fronted press box across the field.
Since those settled days, McGinley has removed the headphones, parked his quill and exited the club management scene, while no sooner had Harte bid a fond adieu to his native county that he was preaching the gospel to the wide-eyed footballers of Louth in Darver.
Today’s Division Four North showdown between familiar rivals Louth and Antrim will take place in one of the most unromantic settings you could find in Ireland – Haggardstown, home of Geraldine’s GFC.
The unremarkable townland that fits snugly to the shores of Dundalk Bay will be teeming with All-Ireland winners – Harte, Gavin ‘Horse’ Devlin, Enda McGinley and Stevie O’Neill.
Harte, in fact, visited all the possible home venues in Louth and plumped for the wide open spaces of Haggardstown – a place that Antrim were acquainted with last October when they ‘hosted’ and defeated the Waterford footballers.
It’s roughly 65 miles from Omagh to Haggardstown – but a million metaphoric miles from the lofty environs of Division One.
There has always been a healthy mutual respect between Errigal Ciaran clubmen Harte and McGinley, both of whom won three All-Ireland titles together as manager and player in the ‘Noughties’.
In early 2003, before the Red Hands took flight, a young McGinley was castigated in a letter printed in The Irish News by a so-called Tyrone supporter.
Harte rang the sports desk the following day and politely but firmly questioned the wisdom of printing the letter because of its deeply critical nature.
This was Harte managing beyond the confines of the football pitch. While Colm O’Rourke may beg to differ, a big element of Harte’s managerial approach has always been pastoral.
As it turned out, McGinley was Tyrone’s most consistent player in 2008 as he pocketed his third Celtic Cross.
Thirteen years on, they’re now trying to topple one another.
The years trip by so fast with many of that Tyrone crew having celebrated their 40th birthdays and moved into coaching, while Harte leaving Tyrone was akin to Alex Ferguson stepping away as manager of Manchester United.
While there have been many column inches and podcasts hours dedicated to today's unique sideline duel, as always, the players will decide the outcome.
After a couple of sessions, the Louth and Antrim footballers will have come to realise that Harte and Devlin and McGinley and O’Neill don’t walk around with magic dust in their pockets.
“There is no magic formula,” Devlin told The Irish News in a recent interview.
“It’s very basic. There is plenty of talent in Louth when they’re on the ball, but it’s also out of possession, how you react...
“You’ve got to love the challenge of trying to win the ball back. You can see a man’s mentality when you don’t have possession of the ball because that’s the real quality within the set-up."
Louth field three debutants in Haggardstown today: goalkeeper Martin McEneaney (St Patrick’s), Donal McKenny (Ardee) and Sean Marry (St Bride’s) but there is no Conor Grimes or Ryan Burns, both of whom are recognised scoring threats.
The experienced Bevan Duffy was persuaded to prolong his inter-county career and partners former Aussie Rules ace Ciaran Byrne in midfield.
Apparently Harte was hugely impressed with Sam Mulroy – one of the brightest prospects in the 'Wee' County in recent years, a period pockmarked by two relegations in three seasons.
Antrim have been rooted to the basement since suffering relegation in 2017.
If McGinley’s opening team selection is to be taken at face value - and that’s perhaps a stretch - he’s got plenty of pace right up the flanks of the team, experienced sentry men in Declan Lynch and the returning James Laverty, a heap of scoring forwards and a few game-changers in reserve.
There were reports yesterday, however, Antrim’s metronomic Mick McCann, named at number 11, could miss the entire League campaign after picking up a foot injury in training.
While McCann's anticipated absence today is a huge blow, Antrim have sufficient experience, pace and scoring power while Louth still look over-reliant on Mulroy in attack.
Antrim by a couple of points – and McGinley claiming the bragging rights.
Louth (NFL v Antrim): Martin McEneaney; D Corcoran, D Campbell, D McKenny; L Jackson, A Williams, E Callaghan; B Duffy, C Byrne; A McDonnell, C Keenan, C Downey; S Marry, S Mulroy, D Byrne
Antrim (NFL v Louth): M Byrne; J McAuley, D Lynch, P Healy; M Jordan, J Laverty, D McAleese; C Stewart, M Sweeney; R Murray, M McCann, R McCann; O Eastwood, K Small, C Murray Subs: L Mulholland, R Johnston, N McKeever, J Crozier, E McAteer, K Rice, P Cunningham, P McBride, E Walsh, N Delargy, E McCabe