Offaly aiming to seal final place with visitors Antrim
Allianz Hurling League Division 2A: Offaly v Antrim (O’Connor Park, 2pm tomorrow)
Beating Offaly in last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup ultimately meant little or nothing for Antrim and the same scenario applies again tomorrow.
For the Faithful County, though, victory is vital for their chances of returning to a higher level of hurling.
Antrim are already through to the Division 2A decider, barring an absolute disaster, a defeat by 37 points or more to drop them into third place below Kerry on scoring difference.
That won’t happen, but a home win, by any margin, would put Michael Fennelly’s men into the final - and another shot at Antrim for a place in Division One.
Offaly are in the strange scenario of aiming for a return to top level of the league while also preparing for unprecedented involvement in the third tier of the Championship after their stunning demotion to the Christy Ring Cup last summer.
Antrim’s feisty, frenetic win in Tullamore last June, by 3-23 to 4-18, played a part in the Faithful’s downfall, even though they improved under Joachim Kelly, who succeeded Kevin Martin halfway through that McDonagh campaign.
Both these counties are under new management, but bosses Michael Fennelly and Darren Gleeson have had to wait to oppose each other in the league, as they did on a few occasions in their playing days with Kilkenny and Tipperary respectively.
The postponement of this round three fixture due to adverse weather conditions in mid-February certainly seems to have worked in Offaly’s favour.
They had started the league poorly, struggling to a two-point home win in their opener against Meath, then losing a crunch clash in Kerry by three points, having failed to score in the last 26 minutes down in Tralee, finishing up with only 0-14 to their account.
After the extended break, though, they have had no trouble scoring, rattling up 5-29 away to Mayo and then 4-29 at home to Wicklow last weekend. Sure, they would have been expected to win both those matches comfortably, but they boosted their scoring difference by 49 in those games whereas Kerry were only 24 points better off against those two opponents.
Offaly’s main scorer has been their net-minder of recent seasons, Eoghan Cahill, although the Birr man has been converted to corner-forward and given the bulk of the responsibility for free-taking.
Even so, Offaly will hope they can call on Oisin Kelly, scorer of the last-gasp Kehoe Cup Final winner against Antrim, after his recent absence. Captain and defender Ben Conneely has also been on the injured list but might be able to play some part.
Arguably this is Offaly’s biggest game of the year, given that they should be much too strong for the rest in the Christy Ring Cup.
Yet on the evidence of this division so far Antrim would be better off losing this in order to meet Offaly in the final rather than Kerry, not least because the Kingdom were missing several players last weekend due to mumps – including top forward Shane Conway.
Sport doesn’t always work out like that, of course, and Antrim will probably want to maintain their winning momentum ahead of the final.
A feature of their league so far has been the competition for places, boosted by Conor Johnston and Conal Cunning both coming back against Kerry.
Whatever side he selects, Gleeson believes in his strength in depth, speaking of “Thirty-three good men on the panel, all training hard, that’s all I want… We’ll give everything when we go to the field.
“We set out as a backroom team at the start of the year for everyone to give everything to Antrim and they’re doing that.”
Selector Johnny Campbell also voiced similar sentiments this week and certainly Antrim won’t go out to lose this one, especially with some players trying to prove their worth for the imminent final.
Offaly have it all to play for but that brings pressure; Antrim might be able to perform with the freedom that keeps their hosts down.