GAA Football

Down boss McCartan hoping to have familiar faces back for Antrim clash

Down boss James McCartan will have to shuffle his pack for the visit of Antrim to Newry tonight. Picture by Evan Logan
Neil Loughran

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section A: Down v Antrim (tonight, 8.15pm, Pairc Esler – Ulster GAA TV live stream available at beosport.live)

DOWN boss James McCartan is hoping to welcome some familiar faces back into his starting 15 for tonight’s clash with Antrim – as a mixture of Covid, injuries and university commitments push his panel to the limit.

McCartan handed starts to nine debutants in Friday night’s Dr McKenna opener against Donegal, with subs introduced bringing that tally up to 13 after they made the long trip to the north-west with a panel of just 22 players.

The likes of John McGeough, Ruairi McCormack, Cormac O’Rawe and Odhran Murdock all caught the eye as a dogged Down made life difficult for Declan Bonner’s men in Ballybofey, while Andrew Gilmore bagged a first half goal on his maiden senior start.

In terms of experience, though, there was only goalkeeper Rory Burns, forwards Barry O’Hagan and Pat Havern, Benny McArdle – who came off the bench in the first half - and the returning pair of Niall McParland and Anthony Doherty, neither of whom has played county football in a few years after living abroad.

Burns looks likely to start between the sticks again tonight as Charlie Smyth will be in Sigerson Cup action for St Mary’s against Technological University, Dublin tomorrow, while Finn McElroy, Tom Close, Tim Prenter and Gilmore – all of whom were involved last Friday – are preparing for Ulster University’s clash with NUI Galway.

Experienced figures like Darren O’Hagan, Kevin McKernan, Gerard Collins, Caolan Mooney and Cory Quinn played no part against Donegal, but McCartan has his fingers crossed that some could feature tonight.

“They’re in a rehab group there tonight up in Belfast, so I’m going to say hopefully. We’ll be dictated to by the medical team, but I’d like to think one or two of them will be available – they’re going to have to be or we won’t be able to field a team!

“Ach, it’s been chaotic. There’s no point in saying any different. Our time was short and then complications like Covid just add insult to injury in certain aspects of it… like we’ve a lot of names on a page but still can only get 22 people to travel to Donegal, just through injury and isolation.

“We had about nine missing who would’ve been in the mix for Donegal. It’s unfortunate, I think the rules will change somewhere along the line where people who aren’t sick or testing positive still have to stay home and drink wine and cheese. It doesn’t make sense to me.

“It’s a different time and things have changed since I was here last time – sport science has moved on too, so at the minute I’m trying to keep up and the wee legs are swimming below the water pretty quickly.”

McCartan could be doing with some of the contingent from county champions Kilcoo.

However, with the Magpies preparing for Sunday’s Ulster club final against Derrygonnelly Harps, the Down boss has let them focus on the job at hand.

“In fairness, Kilcoo have earned the right to prepare for their Ulster final and no I haven’t tried to interfere at all.

“Obviously there’s some top quality players there and, when the time comes, hopefully they’ll want to wear the red and black, but they deserve to go and put their best foot forward for their club.”

Tonight’s game in Newry will be a first competitive run-out for Antrim, who will then face Donegal in their second Section A game at Portglenone on Saturday.

The Saffrons are building towards their Division Three campaign, which begins with an Ulster derby clash against Fermanagh on January 29, and boss Enda McGinley will be keen to get a look at his panel before the League begins.

Some freshening up is unavoidable for the Tyrone man after towering midfielder Niall McKeever, Mark Sweeney, Niall Delargy, Adam Loughran and the retiring Paddy Cunningham stepped away, although he hasn't lost any of his squad to Sigerson commitments.

Wing-back Jamie McCann - so impressive in Creggan’s county title triumph - comes into the fold, while club-mate Marty Johnston is involved after injury, rejoining brother Ricky on the county panel.

All Saints, Ballymena’s Paddy McAleer is back in the mix, while Eoin Hynds and the Cargin pair, Jamie and Ronan Gribbin, are also part of McGinley’s plans.

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