We have the right group of players for Division Three push: Antrim boss Enda McGinley
ANTRIM boss Enda McGinley has tipped his hat to the players who have stepped up to the challenge of raising standards in the county and has also backed the return of the Dr McKenna Cup.
Last season, Tyrone’s three-time All-Ireland winner claimed promotion out of Division Four with Antrim and although they’ve lost a few “strong players” from the 2021 panel, McGinley is very content with the squad that he’s been able to assemble ahead of their Division Three campaign.
Niall McKeever, Mark Sweeney, Paddy Cunningham (retired), Niall Delargy and Adam Loughran stepped away from the panel but among the new faces are Kickham’s Creggan wing-back Jamie McCann who had a brilliant season while club-mate Marty Johnston is back involved after injury.
It’s no major surprise to see McKeever and Sweeney call time on their inter-county careers while Cunningham’s retirement was not unexpected – but, given their age, Niall Delargy and Adam Loughran’s absence will have raised some eyebrows.
“We’ve brought a few new faces in but by and large there was a great core of lads there from last year which we were very, very happy with,” said McGinley.
“In year two, you know the shape of the panel and you always want to bring in a bit of fresh blood too. Jamie McCann and Marty Johnston are on board which is great - two really strong additions to be fair.
“When you come to picking a squad you can very quickly sense true ambition in people,” McGinley added.
“For me, county football at the minute is a really tough challenge for people to take on because, in some ways, it’s more comfortable not to be there. You can get told that you’re a great club player and you should be at county, or you can step up and take that real test. Then it’s trying to compete to make the team. I’m very happy with the players we have. We’ve obviously lost players, strong players, from last year.
“But looking at the team and the possible starting 15, I’m very happy. The key thing is the boys who want to be here are here and they want to take on the challenge and we have to challenge them as hard as we can in training every night to see if they can step up and be a county footballer and explore the differences with club football.”
Antrim have four home games in Division Three (Limerick, Wicklow, Longford and Westmeath) and three fixtures away from home (Fermanagh, Laois and Louth).
McGinley added: “We have to realistic about what we did last year and if that’s the sum total of our ambition then there’s no real point being there.
“It’s going to be massively difficult to push on from it but isn’t that a brilliant place to be in? If you’re going to push on, why not now? There are seven other teams in Division Three who might be starting a wee bit ahead of us and probably have more experience recently of that level but I’d be very hopeful that we won’t be found wanting.”
First, though, Antrim will warm up for their Division Three campaign with McKenna Cup games against Down (Jan 11) and Donegal (Jan 15).
“I was happy to see the McKenna Cup back to be honest. It takes the hassle out of arranging challenge matches - you’re trying to get it as competitive as possible.
“The McKenna Cup is that bit more public, every player is a competitive being underneath and every management team is the same.
“It ups the ante a wee bit - it’s not at National League level but of course teams like doing their business behind closed doors but the McKenna Cup has been a really healthy competition over last decade or more so it would’ve been a pity to lose it. I remember the email coming out and it was pretty much optional whether you signed up for it or not and all counties did so that proves the value we place on it.”
Antrim’s NFL Division Three fixtures 2022
Sat Jan 30: Fermanagh v Antrim
Sun Feb 5: Antrim v Limerick
Sat Feb 19: Antrim v Wicklow
Sat Feb 26: Laois v Antrim
Sat March 12: Antrim v Longford
Sun March 20: Louth v Antrim
Sun March 27: Antrim v Westmeath