Understrength Antrim face an Offaly tough task in Division Three opener
Allianz Football League Division Three, round one: Antrim v Offaly (Corrigan Park, Sunday, 2pm)
By Kenny Archer
DUAL counties Antrim and Offaly may be, but on the sidelines they have representatives of two historic football powerhouses, Meath against Kerry.
New bosses both, Andy McEntee for the Saffrons, Liam Kearns with the Faithful county, but the former has much more to prove.
McEntee’s task is clearly a tougher one, both in the short- and the long-term.
For various reasons, Antrim are absent quite a few big-name players, including the McCann brothers, Tomas and Mick, the Johnstons, Ricky and Martin, defender James Laverty and attacker Conor Murray. That’s a huge chunk of experience to be without.
They also seem set to be missing, in the short-term, Jamie Gribbin, Peter Healy, Oisin Lenehan, Adam Loughran, Declan Lynch, Paddy McAleer, Eoghan McCabe, and Kevin Small.
Being positive, Antrim have achieved very little on the football front in recent years, so perhaps the much-changed line-up will bring improvement.
Offaly have certainly enjoyed success, including winning the 2021 All-Ireland U20 Football Championship, having defeated Dublin in the Leinster decider, before seeing off Cork then Roscommon.
Defenders Lee Pearson and Rory Egan, and forward Jack Bryant are likely graduates from that grade, while Anton Sullivan and Nigel Dunne offer more experience in attack.
They also beat the Dubs again this year, albeit effectively an U20 team in blue, in the O’Byrne Cup, having seen off Oisin McConville’s Wicklow, but then scratched from the semi-final against Louth.
Kearns selected the same six backs and two midfielders for both matches, with 11 players starting both games, and they conceded just 15 points in total, albeit only scoring 1-20.
Kearns has an impressive body of work behind him, with inter-couny stints at Limerick, Laois, and Tipperary.
The Tralee native made Limerick the second force in Munster Football, above Cork and pushing Kerry hard in the 2003 final, then taking the eventual All-Ireland champions to a replay the following season. He brought Laois to the 2007 Leinster SFC final, a six-point loss to Dublin.
Tipperary under Kearns reached their first All-Ireland SFC semi-final in 81 years in 2016, and then won Division Three in 2017.
McEntee stopped the rot in Meath, taking them up to Division One in 2019 after a 13-yerar absence.
He also took the Royals to the Leinster SFC final that year and the next, but both ended in heavy defeats to Dublin (16 and 21 points), as did last year’s provincial semi-final (13 points).
So both men have a track record of improving sides, although Kearns’s achievements in elevating perceived lesser lights onto the big stages is surely more impressive.
Meath are traditional big guns, which brings challenges in itself.
Antrim, though, is a very different problem. They showed few signs of hope in the McKenna Cup, defeats to Armagh and Cavan, and must be much better to get off to a good start in what is likely to be a highly competitive division.
Realistically, survival has to be the Saffrons’ aim, not promotion. With only three home matches, and this opener followed by trips to Down and Tipperary, anything other than a win tomorrow will put Antrim on the back foot from the outset.