Antrim plotting a new path as they take on old foes Dublin
Walsh Cup: Dublin v Antrim (Sunday, 2pm, DCU Sportsgrounds)
IT’S hard to fathom how different the paths are these two have taken since Karl Stewart dumped Dublin out of the All-Ireland series and sent Antrim into the last eight in 2010.
While Dublin have since recovered and climbed on up the ladder to win a Leinster title, feature in two other finals and reach the last four of the Liam McCarthy Cup, Antrim’s juxtaposed slide properly comes into focus as the sides prepare to meet on Sunday. There are two full tiers of the National League separating them. The Dubs will rub shoulders with Kilkenny, Tipperary, Cork and the rest through the year.
A Walsh Cup tie will hardly constitute the be-all of either of their 2016 campaigns but, for Antrim, the hurt of their relegation will seldom feel more intensely painful than when they step out in the DCU Sportsgrounds on Sunday afternoon. It will hurt because it will be a frustratingly rare opportunity to face higher-level opposition in what’s set to be a purgatorial year. This could be the last time they share the pitch with a side of such quality for 12 months.
“I can’t say what’s gone before, but my firm belief is that, if both squads were at full strength, there’d be nothing in the two teams,” says new Antrim boss PJ O’Mullan.
“Unfortunately on Sunday, that’s not the case. We’ll be going with what we have at the minute. It’s an opportunity for other lads though. My belief is that we’re capable of competing with Dublin. It’s a chance for players to go out with no pressure, where the result’s irrelevant and see if they can play at that standard.
“There was very little between the two teams a couple of years ago, but Dublin pushed on and Antrim maybe didn’t. That’s what we’re looking to do now, is push on this season. The work begins now to try and get back up playing the like of Dublin in the league they’re in.”
It will be a full season minus Paul Shiels too, it seems. O’Mullan might even have hoped to build his team around the hugely talented Dunloy man, had it not been for his bothersome hips. He had hoped to feature in the Championship at some stage, but the new Antrim boss conceded his ambitions of playing any hurling for the county this year are optimistic.
“We’ll probably not have much out of him this season, which is a shame because he’s a super player. He needs the surgery and he needs the time to recover," O'Mullan said.
“It’s important for himself, his club and Antrim going forward that this is done now. You just have to bite the bullet and go with it."
The Saffrons made their first excursion onto grass on Thursday night as they beat Queen’s by 2-17 to 2-7 in the Conor McGurk Tournament. CJ McGourty starred on a team that blended a touch of experience with five debutants, with Gabriel McTaggart, Chrissy Brogan (both Dunloy), Seán McGrath (Loughgiel), Conor McConville (Lámh Dhearg) and Bernard Graham (Clooney Gaels).
Even though it has left the squad playing two games in just over three days, O’Mullan was keen to enter the McGurk Tournament in a bid to look at as many players as possible.
“We knew we wouldn’t get a look at everybody just playing in the Walsh Cup, so when the opportunity came to play in the McGurk Cup, with us being new management, it was going to give us an opportunity to look at everybody and mix and match,” he said.
Dublin opened their year with a 4-15 to 3-12 win over UCD in this competition last weekend, with Paul Ryan and Éamon Dillon hitting 4-8 between them to headline a fresh-looking forward line. Liam Rushe and Joey Boland provided the defensive experience, though it remains to be seen how strong Ger Cunningham will go for Sunday’s tie.
Antrim will take a squad of 26 to DCU on Sunday, which will include Simon McCrory, Michael Bradley and Chrissy O’Connell, all of whom are on the way back from injury. O’Mullan’s clubmates Liam Watson and Eddie McCloskey are set to make their returns, though Tony McCloskey is sidelined as he prepares for surgery on a groin problem. He is facing a race to be fit for their National League Division 2A opener against Derry.
Dublin’s first game in Division 1A is a glamorous, floodlit, televised Saturday night tie against Tipperary in Thurles. That pretty much sums up how their paths have deviated.
Antrim squad: C O’Connell, B McFall, C McClelland, C McKinley, O McFadden, C Johnson, N McAuley, K McKiernan, J Black, E McCloskey, N McKenna, M Bradley, C Johnson, L Watson, C Clarke, S McCrory, G McTaggart, D Nugent, CJ McGourty, D McCloskey, G Walsh, S McAfee, M Dudley, S McGrath, D Hamill, C Brogan.