Christy Ring semi-final: Antrim v Down (Saturday, Loughgiel, 3.30pm)
IT’S a sub-plot that will be forgotten once the sloitar is thrown in at Fr Healy Park on Saturday afternoon. Still, this Christy Ring semi-final between two old Ulster rivals has thrown up a rare situation.
A father and two sons will be adversaries for 70 minutes. Down manager Mickey Johnston will be in one corner and his two sons, Ciaran and Conor, in the other. It’s not the first time it’s happened, as Ciaran explains: “I played against my dad’s team before, when Antrim U21s played Armagh in the Ulster final at Casement about five-years-ago.
“I came on sub and scored a couple of points and we won,” Ciaran says.
“There has been a bit of banter in the house and a few jokes this week. When the game comes, we’d be professional that way. You’re there to do a job. It’s just over an hour of hurling. Whatever happens, happens.
“But people have to remember as well, our dad’s the biggest influence on our careers and he’ll be our biggest supporter. If we’re hurling well, he’s happy, even though he’s manager of Down.”
Antrim clinched their semi-berth by dismissing Kildare and Roscommon, while Down recovered from losing to London by recording back-to-back wins over Derry and Roscommon.
Ciaran wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see two of the oldest hurling rivals in Ulster collide: “You could see it coming, couldn’t you?
"Antrim were always going to draw Down in the semi-finals. But there are no surprises between the two teams. The Down teams play in the Antrim leagues, so both sides know what they’re up against.”
Both the Johnston brothers have recovered from respective injuries to be available for Saturday’s meeting with their father’s improving Down team. Conor, who missed the wins over Kildare and Roscommon with an ankle injury, is fit again, while Ciaran has overcome a nasty leg gash he sustained in the early throes of the win over the Rossies three weeks ago.
“There’s still a wound there, but the healing process has been quicker than what I thought,” says Ciaran.
“Mark Salters, our doctor, did a great job on it. I had eight stitches taken out last week. There was a ruck and it was my own team-mate Conor Carson who turned round and his studs just went straight into my leg, it just missed the shin.
“It actually wasn’t that sore, I was more worried about fractures or breaks, but it was just the shock of it at the time when you look down and you see a hole in your leg.”
Antrim suffered plenty of collateral damage after struggling to overcome an impressive Roscommon side in Dunloy. Tony McCloskey, Sean McAfee and Paddy Burke limped out of that clash, but all seem to be fit for Saturday’s testy examination in Loughgiel, while Conor McKinley is back after a knee injury to boost Antrim's half-back line options.
Down also have Michael McCullagh and Paul Sheehan on the comeback trail, but Aaron O’Prey is out as he is best man at a wedding. The Ards men did well to avoid a relegation play-off by going to Derry and winning and they did a much better job in despatching Roscommon than Antrim managed.
“That would the eye-opener if anyone needed it,” insisted Ciaran.
“We obviously didn’t play well against Roscommon. I watched the Down-Roscommon game and they were full value for their win and they should have won by a lot more. Down hurled really well.”
After losing to London in their Christy Ring opener, Down probably feel in bonus territory - which could have a liberating effect on the Ards men in Loughgiel. Roving forward Danny Toner is an obvious threat to their hosts today while Brook Byers has bagged 1-3 from play and Oisin McManus has chipped in with five points in Down’s back-to-back wins. They have reliable free-takers and a sprinkling of steady man-markers in James McGrath, Sean Ennis and Finty Conway.
And they will need them against the likes of Conor Johnston, James Connolly and the best player in this year’s competition, Ciaran Clarke, while Eddie McCloskey was superb at midfield against the Rossies.
Apart from a devastating first-half against Kildare, Antrim have played within themselves so far. There is much more in them - and playing an old rival might just get the best out of them.