Allianz National Football League Division Three: Antrim v Limerick (today, Corrigan Park, 2.30pm)
JUST before the global pandemic struck in March 2020, the Antrim footballers looked like they’d turned the corner.
Despite losing a one-point game down in Sligo earlier in the campaign, they’d shown enough glimpses to suggest they’d finally outgrown Division Four.
Paddy Cunningham and Mick McCann were back by popular demand and Lenny Harbinson’s side had found a bit of rhythm.
They eked out a draw against a physically imposing Carlow in Glenavy before moving to the wide open prairies of Portglenone where they took apart Limerick the following week.
“Antrim pretty much took every chance they made, their conversion rate was very high,” Limerick boss Billy Lee bitterly recalls, who is now in his sixth year. “They played really smartly and deserved their win.”
St Enda’s forward Odhran Eastwood was on fire that day, notching a brilliant 2-3 and Patrick McBride rammed the ball over Limerick’s bar seven times. It was the best Antrim display in several years.
One more win against Wicklow and Antrim would be in Division Three.
If COVID19 hadn’t intervened and Antrim got to play Wicklow the following week, they most probably would've got out of Division Four a year earlier than they actually did.
Who knows, Harbinson might still be at the helm and Enda McGinley and Stevie O’Neill would still be kicking around the club circuit.
As it turned out, it was seven months before the Wicklow game could take place – and the Ulstermen were humiliated in Aughrim 7-11 to 0-7.
Limerick recovered from their own hammering in Portglenone to gain promotion alongside Wicklow. Antrim stayed put.
From one game to the next – albeit seven months apart – Antrim showed the best and worst of themselves.
Managerial change was inevitable.
At the first attempt, Enda McGinley hauled Antrim out of doldrums in an abbreviated NFL format – but it's really only this year the Errigal Ciaran man has been able to get his teeth into the job.
Last Saturday night in Brewster Park, Antrim took a fair bite out of hosts Fermanagh to signal their intentions of pushing for promotion again.
Their encouraging form line in the McKenna Cup certainly carried into their Division Three opener and they ended up beating the Ernemen at a canter.
The overall performance was so unlike Antrim. For a long time, no team in Ulster has been more adept than Antrim in throwing games away from winning positions.
McGinley’s men rode their luck to lead 0-6 to 0-3 at the break and once Fermanagh cut the arrears to 0-9 to 0-8 in the 57th minute, Antrim supporters probably expected yet another game to slip from their tenuous grasp.
Instead, however, Antrim routed their hosts in the final quarter by hitting 1-5 without reply. Obdurate is rarely a word associated with the Saffrons – but that’s exactly what they were for the vast majority of the tie.
They were street-wise too, conceding fouls and half-fouls to slow up Fermanagh’s counter-attack in the second half, with referee Barry Tiernan showing some leniency at times.
McGinley is expected to make minimal changes to his starting line-up against the Shannonsiders today, although there may be a tweak along their half-forward line.
Few performances dipped below a seven-out-of-10 against Fermanagh – Eoghan McCabe, Ricky Johnston, Mick McCann, Kevin Small, Ryan Murray, Tomas McCann, Ruairi McCann and Jamie Gribbin all playing their part in the nine-point win.
Last week, Limerick hit four goals past Longford in their opener with Brian Donovan bagging two of them and they managed to hold off a spirited second-half revival from their visitors to ease to a seven-point win.
“As much as you do take note of what the opposition is doing we’ll concentrate on ourselves,” said Lee.
Limerick will be an awkward customer at Corrigan Park this afternoon - but there is a steeliness about this Antrim team that hasn't been there for quite a while.
If McGinley's men show the same appetite as they did in Brewster Park for doing the ugly things well they have enough intelligence in attack to remain unbeaten.