Allianz National Football League Division Three: Down v Antrim (Saturday, Pairc Esler, 6pm)
THERE is a distinct difference in mood music already, but that could change as Antrim travel to Newry tonight bidding to get their Division Two campaign back on track against in-form Down.
Like Mourne county counterpart Conor Laverty, new Antrim boss Andy McEntee is still sussing out what is at his disposal, working on ways to plane out the rough edges of a newish-look side still blowing more cold than hot after an uneasy start to the year.
The necessity for a rebuild of sorts – in the absence of experienced campaigners like Ricky and Martin Johnston, Michael and Tomas McCann, James Laverty and Conor Murray – hasn’t made life any easier.
The Meath man has been around the block a few times, and knows just how quickly the League can come and go.
Heading into the break after tonight’s game with no points on the board would not be the disaster some might suggest, considering their campaign started against the two counties relegated from Division Two.
But, after the disappointment of the opening weekend’s six-point defeat to Offaly at Corrigan Park, Antrim need to show that it stung – that it wasn’t good enough, lessons are being learnt.
No doubt the video will have been watched back, with the evidence showing that for much of the game Offaly had it their way, despite a late Antrim fightback.
There were points that could have been awarded, a possible penalty shout, but in the end McEntee had few complaints, with a lack of killer instinct and some wayward decision-making before the posts costing them when it mattered.
The Saffron boss will have a stronger hand tonight, with Kevin Small and Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann in the frame for starting spots after being brought off the bench for the second half last week.
Following his All-Ireland final commitments with Ulster hurling champions Dunloy, Declan Smith could add a different dimension if called upon, while Aghagallon goalkeeper Luke Mulholland has also rejoined the panel.
But the bottom line is that, whether it comes in the form of points or performance – ideally both – the Saffrons need to take something back up the road from Newry.
Down, though, look to be on a different level at the minute.
The early-season promise of the Dr McKenna Cup was translated into something tangible as they got off to a winning start against Tipperary last weekend, though the Mournemen are unlikely to be getting too carried away with that result.
For a start, the Premier county – in the absence of so many key men – are in a period of transition and, having come up from Division Four last year, could find themselves looking over the shoulders once more.
A well-organised defence, one of the hallmarks of Kilcoo’s success through the years, formed the basis of a commanding first half in Thurles, with Tipp failing to register a shot at goal from open play as Laverty’s men cruised into a seven-point lead.
At the other end, Pat Havern is a man on fire, leading the forward line with power and panache.
But there will be concern at the manner in which David Power’s side took advantage of some sloppy play to force themselves back into contention after Niall McParland had picked up a second yellow card.
For all the early-season optimism, Down remain far from where Laverty will want them to be – the fact he has yet to designate a captain suggesting the rule is still being run as they go in search of promotion.
Goalkeeper Niall Kane comes in for John O’Hare while Ceilum Doherty – who came off the bench at Semple Stadium – is also named to start tonight.
Their fellow Magpies, brothers Shealan, Ryan and Jerome Johnston, are unlikely to feature until later in the campaign, although Longstone’s versatile Finn McElroy is not too far away from a return to the fray.
With the feel-good factor that has brought in the New Year so far, Down will be determined to keep that going into the break.
Unlike in previous years, the county expects – and their aggressive, counter-attacking style should prove too hot to handle for a Saffron side still finding its feet.
Down: N Kane, R Magill, R McEvoy, P Laverty, C Francis, N McParland, M Rooney, N Donnelly, O Murdock,G Collins, D McAleenan, L Kerry, C Doherty, P Havern, B O’Hagan