Antrim and Donegal to battle it out for spot in Dr McKenna Cup knockout phase
Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup, Section A, round two: (today, Portglenone, 1.15pm)
ANTRIM and Donegal play for a top spot in their section and an automatic berth in the semi-finals of the Dr McKenna Cup at Portglenone this afternoon.
Both sides go into the game with confidence high after two-point victories over Down. Donegal's 1-13 to 2-8 success came in the opener at Ballybofey, Antrim recorded a 1-12 to 1-10 victory at Pairc Esler on Tuesday night.
Saffron management duo Enda McGinley and Stevie O'Neill blooded four debutants in Newry and, since both were part of Dr McKenna Cup-winning sides during their playing days with Tyrone, it's no surprise that O'Neill views fixtures against Division Two outfit Down and top flight county Donegal as ideal preparation for a Division Three campaign that begins against Fermanagh at the end of this month. A place in the knockout phase of the competition would be welcome progress for this developing Antrim side.
“Division Three is going to be very, very tight and it's a step-up from what we were playing last year,” said O'Neill.
“So to play against some of the top teams in Ulster is a challenge for Antrim and it's a good for the boys to pit themselves against that quality and see where they can get to.
“As Enda often says to the lads: this is a great time to play football because all the set-ups now are so professional with the strength and conditioning and the video analysis… It's a great time to be playing and you can really make the best of yourself. Playing McKenna Cup is something we relish and it's great preparation for Fermanagh.”
Donegal were led to victory over Down by Paddy McBrearty's five points in Ballybofey. Manager Declan Bonner introduced new faces Charlie McGuinness and Shane O'Donnell to the side that held off a rookie Mourne county line-up in their opener.
O'Neill predicts “a few changes” to Antrim's starting line-up this afternoon with the Portglenone clubman Dermot McAleese, the Murray brothers, Conor and Ryan, and St Enda's centre-back James McAuley all pushing for starting spots after coming off the bench on Tuesday night.
“It's good to have the two games so you can try out new men and you can use as many subs as you like so it gives everybody a few minutes on the field,” said O'Neill.
“New lads have come in this year and they're getting their chance and pushing on well so everybody knows that they're fighting for their place.”
Antrim played to a well-rehearsed gameplan in Newry with Odhran Eastwood operating as a ball-winning full-forward with James McCann and Paddy McBride among the players providing support from the flanks at every opportunity.
In defence, James Laverty and Ricky Johnston were outstanding and so too was evergreen Cargin clubman Mick McCann, a calm head around midfield who showed a safe pair of hands in his own square and popped up with a second half point.
“The new lads and the older lads are working well together and they've been training well this last few weeks,” said O'Neill.
“It's nice to see the stuff that they're doing on the training pitch is starting to pay dividends. We have a lot to work on still and that's going to challenge the lads to up the ante and put in a good performance again.
“It's never easy to come to Newry and get a result although we tried our best not to win with the amount of wides we were kicking! But we managed to stay strong and survive the Down fightback.
“We got a bit of luck at the end (Down needed a goal from a late free but Barry O'Hagan's shot cannoned off the crossbar, hit Ricky Johnston's head and went for a point) and it was nice to see the ball go over the bar because I felt that we deserved the result and it always gives us a boost to build on that.”