Antrim expected to stay in promotion hunt against Armagh
Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Armagh v Antrim (tomorrow, The Athletic Grounds, 2pm)
ANTRIM hurlers remain unbeaten in Division 2A after three games – but Conor McCann feels they're still not firing on all cylinders ahead of tomorrow's Ulster derby with struggling Armagh.
The Saffrons got past London before sharing the spoils down in Carlow. And for early periods against Kildare in Cushendall last week they had their hands full.
Although they went on to win by two points they probably should have won by a bigger margin in the end.
As it stands, they sit second in Division 2A and will feel they can maintain that berth after tomorrow's tussle with the Orchard County.
“I think we're moving in the right direction; it's moving in a better direction than we were before,” said McCann.
“Pre-season was tough and we maybe got away from that over the last few years and we weren't doing what we should have been doing. It was tough but it was needed.”
The Creggan clubman has returned to the camp after a year away and has added some much-needed ball-winning ability to Antrim's half-forward line.
The Kildare game wasn't one of McCann's best performances this season – but what impressed joint manager Terence McNaughton was the 24-year-old's work-rate and “not letting his head drop”.
“We keep telling the boys if they're not playing well, keep working hard and to make sure their man doesn't play well. And to be fair to the players they are showing really strong character.”
Ballycastle defender Neal McAuley will once again be deployed in the full-forward role where he offers the side a ball-winning option as well as providing a foil for tricksters Ciaran Clarke and Conor Johnston.
Both Clarke and Johnston have had excellent games so far this year – but Antrim are still waiting for the pair to click on the same afternoon.
Matthew Donnelly is retained at centre half-back after coming off the bench to curtail the influence of David Reidy last week.
Paul Shiels sits out tomorrow's tie after sustaining a hand injury but the Dunloy man is expected to be fit to resume against Westmeath, Antrim's final Division 2A game, on March 26.
Neil McManus is still being nursed back into the squad after suffering a fractured cheekbone.
With Westmeath losing valuable ground in Division 2A, it could be a three-way fight between Kildare, Carlow and Antrim for the two play-off berths.
Armagh, for their part, have found the going tough in the thinner air of Division 2A after pipping Down to promotion last season.
The Orchard men lost to Westmeath by 22 points last week but only lost by three to Kildare in between drawing with London.
“It's a tough division,” added McCann. “The teams are really strong. You look at Kildare and they had players that would have been playing 1B most years.
“It's physical hurling. I think a lot of counties have stepped up in that second tier – the likes of Laois, Kerry and Meath, so it's a lot more competitive now.
“Promotion is really our main aim at this stage. We're definitely capable of it but it's whether we can get those performances out of ourselves because we haven't been firing fully yet.”
Armagh will be looking to mend some bruised pride from last weekend – and no better team to try and achieve this than against provincial kingpins Antrim.
The visitors will need to be on their guard at The Athletic Grounds tomorrow. But the tantalising prize of promotion that hangs in front of Antrim should see them stay in the hunt.
Antrim (NHL v Armagh): C O'Connell; S Rooney, J Dillon, Ciaran Johnston; T Coyle, M Donnelly, P Burke; C McKinley, S McCory; E Campbell, C McCann, N McKenna; C Clarke, N McAuley, Conor Johnston Subs: R Elliott, Daniel McKernan, P McGill, O McFadden, N McManus, D Murphy, M Connolly, J Maskey, J McNaughton, R Diamond, C Carson