GAA Football

Cagey affair expected between promotion hopefuls Fermanagh and Antrim

Fermanagh manager Kieran Donnelly makes his NFL debut

Allianz National Football League Division Three: Fermanagh v Antrim (tonight, Brewster Park, 7pm)

IT’S probably safe to conclude that Fermanagh and Antrim would have preferred different opponents in their opening game in Division Three.

Both counties will have designs on giving promotion a major push this spring, but there were definitely easier openers out there.

Indeed, if Kieran Donnelly and Enda McGinley – two Sigerson-winning team-mates with UUJ in 2001 - were offered a point apiece now, they’d bite your hand off.

It’s crazy to think that we’re not out of January and already there is so much riding on the outcome of this clash.

Fermanagh will be very grateful they have home advantage this evening as new boss Donnelly continues to survey what Ryan McMenamin left behind.

Eoin Donnelly has retired from inter-county football but with the return of Ryan Jones after a year away should compensate the Erne midfield.

Still licking his wounds from Derrygonnelly’s Ulster final drubbing at the hands of Kilcoo, Jones was one of the first players back and is expected to feature against Antrim.

It is understood full-forward Conall Jones has had to delay his return to county colours due to exams, with the Derrygonnelly contingent occupying six berths on the panel.

“It’s a tough start and Antrim probably feel the same,” said Donnelly. “No doubt we missed the Derrygonnelly players for the McKenna Cup games because they are key players going forward but we’ve prepared well. It’s all about trying to get that first win because it’s all about momentum.”

The Fermanagh native will put his trust in Sean Quigley and Darragh McGurn to lead the Erne attack.

Fermanagh are still hoping for a maximum return from the St Michael’s contingent who clinched the Hogan Cup in 2019.

Sean McNally remains in goal, while Luke Flanagan and Garrett Cavanagh are expected to form two-thirds of the Fermanagh full-back line.

Josh Largo-Ellis, Joe McDade and Brandon Horan are other Hogan winners who are pushing for starts in the Fermanagh team, with midfielder McDade catching the eye in the side’s back-to-back McKenna Cup defeats to Monaghan and Derry.

Antrim, by contrast, had a more encouraging pre-season – claiming a morale-boosting win over Down in Newry before allowing Donegal to escape down the home straight in Portglenone with a couple of points to spare.

McGinley, though, still wasn’t happy with the unforced error count in both games.

For the Errigal Ciaran man, the message needed to be rammed home – and no better time to ram it home than before the start of the National League.

Running Donegal to within two points is not a time for pats on the back.

Each syllable uttered into press reporters’ tape-recorders in the aftermath was designed to train the Antrim mindset that the margin for error must be narrowed.

“The management have a great relationship with the players in the sense that they can crack a joke at the right time,” veteran midfielder Mick McCann said.

“And when the serious stuff starts they’re steely characters and they have a drive to win and they know football inside out.

“But, listen, I don’t want this to sound like everything is hunky dory and we’re doing brilliant – but the players are working as hard as they can for these boys and generally that’s a good starting point.”

Antrim’s departures from the 2021 panel are well documented at this stage. Niall McKeever, Mark Sweeney, Paddy Cunningham and Niall Delargy are a significant chunk of experience gone while Adam Loughran seemed set to be one to watch in 2022 but he stepped away from the squad too.

However, in their place, Kickham’s Creggan trio Jamie McCann, Kevin Small and Marty Johnston offer plenty of muscle and dynamism in Antrim’s middle eight.

There’s also a settled, battle-hardened look about the Antrim back-line while Mick McCann’s nose for being in the right place at the right time down the centre of the pitch is a big asset in the team structure.

Antrim have a sprinkling of quality forwards too – Odhran Eastwood, Ryan Murray, Conor Murray and Tomas McCann. The fact that they won three of last season’s NFL games by a point will also give them confidence of being able to dog it out in the final exchanges of games in Division Three.

New arrivals to the division, Antrim won’t be intimidated by the new company they’re keeping. Expect a cagey affair in Brewster Park tonight, probably low-scoring with defences well on top with a share of the spoils not being ruled out.

Odhran Eastwood will be one of Antrim's key forwards this term Picture by Hugh Russell.

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