Football

Antrim dealt severe blow as five players opt out for 2024 season

Keelan Molloy (right) and Ryan Elliott embrace after winning the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2020. Both men have opted out of Antrim duty for next year, alongside clubmates Seaan Elliott and Eoin O'Neill as well as St Enda's defender Joe Maskey. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Keelan Molloy (right) and Ryan Elliott embrace after winning the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2020. Both men have opted out of Antrim duty for next year, alongside clubmates Seaan Elliott and Eoin O'Neill as well as St Enda's defender Joe Maskey. Picture by Seamus Keelan Molloy (right) and Ryan Elliott embrace after winning the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2020. Both men have opted out of Antrim duty for next year, alongside clubmates Seaan Elliott and Eoin O'Neill as well as St Enda's defender Joe Maskey. Picture by Seamus Loughran

ANTRIM hurlers’ hopes for the 2024 season have been dealt a further early blow with the news that five more key players have opted out for the year.

Dunloy quartet Ryan Elliott, Seaan Elliott, Keelan Molloy and Eoin O’Neill, as well as Joe Maskey (St Enda’s), have informed Darren Gleeson that they are all taking next year out.

With the retirement of Neil McManus and the departure of Domhnall Nugent, it leaves the Saffrons with significant gaps to fill, particularly in attack.

Molloy, McManus and Seaan Elliott all started up front in their last-day win in Westmeath that retained their Leinster SHC status, having already secured another year in Division 1B in the spring.

Keelan Molloy started all 10 of Antrim’s league and championship games this year and played all but 35 minutes of it in total, scoring in nine of his ten outings.

Ryan Elliott in goals has been one of the standout players of Gleeson’s reign, a virtual ever-present in recent seasons. Ballycastle’s Tiarnan Smyth deputised for him against Waterford (league) and Galway (Leinster SHC) this year, but Elliott has been their undisputed number one for a while.

His cousin Seaan featured in eight of their ten games as well, starting six of them including that crucial win in Westmeath where he scored two points from corner-forward, taking his tally for the year to 0-7.

Eoin O’Neill also came on and scored 1-1 that day in Cusack Park. His role had been primarily as a sub, having joined up early with Antrim as he was ineligible for Dunloy’s run to the All-Ireland club final.

He had decided in early 2022 to head for London with the intention of going on to Australia, and transferred to Robert Emmet’s in the English capital before changing his mind about the southern hemisphere.

But he wasn’t eligible to transfer back home in the same season so missed out on Dunloy’s run despite being back home as they reached Croke Park, where they took Ballyhale down the stretch.

It has been a long two years for the Dunloy contingent, whose hurling side looked jaded as they lost their Antrim and Ulster titles in a surprise semi-final loss to Loughgiel.

The club’s footballers, with a huge overlap of dual players, also reached a first senior championship final in 82 years, adding considerably to the workload.

Joe Maskey has also decided to take the year out. The St Enda’s man made his debut in 2017 and, like Keelan Molloy, was named on the Joe McDonagh Team of the Year when Antrim won it three years ago.

He started just three games this year however and his absence will dent Gleeson’s defensive options.

With the totemic McManus having retired after a 17-year inter-county career, the Antrim management will be hoping that the Cushendall contingent all return when their campaign draws to a close.

They face Slaughtneil in the Ulster Club final this Sunday, with the winners facing an All-Ireland semi-final against the Leinster champions – either O’Loughlin Gaels or Na Fianna – in two weeks’ time.

The All-Ireland club finals don’t then take place until the weekend of January 20/21, just two weeks before the expected start date for the Allianz League.