Promotion the only show in town for Antrim hurlers
Allianz National Hurling League Division 2A: Kerry v Antrim (tomorrow, Tullamore, 1.30pm)
A BIT like the county's footballers, the Antrim hurlers are in Championship mode already for their Division One promotion face-off with Kerry in Tullamore tomorrow afternoon.
For Darren Gleeson, their entire season hinges on Kerry. While a hugely popular and successful competition, the Joe McDonagh campaign is a distant second for Antrim in 2020.
Given the soaring Covid19 rates, however, it is a major stretch to think the Joe McDonagh will start never mind get concluded. While that would be a disappointment for all concerned, ask anyone in the Antrim camp and they’ll all say: ‘It’s all about Kerry.’
Kerry, Westmeath, Laois, Carlow and Antrim have all been on the cusp of hurling’s top table over the past decade.
Each of the five counties have sampled Division One hurling but most of their stays have been short-lived. One of the biggest days in Kerry hurling’s history turned out to be one of Antrim’s lowest.
Back in 2015, the Saffrons lost their Division One status to Kerry. Kevin Ryan’s men were well beaten at Parnell Park in April of that year and it’s been generally a struggle for Antrim’s hurlers ever since.
Relegation and promotion play-offs are in Antrim’s DNA. In 2017, they beat Carlow to reach Division One again but came straight back down the following season.
Last year, 13-men Antrim lost to Kerry by a point at Corrigan Park with the imperturbable Shane Conway leading the Kingdom’s charge with 12 points (nine frees) at the Whiterock Road venue.
Earlier this year, Antrim took Kerry’s scalp in Tralee – but the hosts had lost three players to a bout of mumps, including star man Conway, who was described as “the Messi of hurling” by UCC manager Tom Kingston earlier this year.
The Lixnaw native was also in imperious scoring form in last month’s Cork SHC semi-final, which UCC lost to Blackrock after extra-time, with Conway amassing 0-14 of his side’s tally.
Conway’s anticipated battle with Cushendall’s Paddy Burke in Tullamore tomorrow promises to be an intriguing one. Just as intriguing, though, will be Darren Gleeson’s starting line-up and how many personnel changes there’ll be from their last NHL outing – a draw with Offaly in Tullamore on March 8.
St John’s attacker Conor Johnston isn’t fit while club-mate Domhnall Nugent might only be able for the latter part of the game after suffering a dislocated elbow in the Johnnies’ gut-wrenching semi-final defeat to Loughgiel Shamrocks on September 6.
Defender Simon McCrory, another Johnnies man, agreed to return to the Antrim squad. Gleeson had hoped to recruit Michael Armstrong for the resumption of the season, but the O'Donovan Rossa man, who was the stand-out player in the club championship, couldn't commit.
Still, there is sufficient quality in Gleeson’s ranks for Antrim to seal promotion tomorrow afternoon.
Dunloy’s attacking duo Conal ‘Koby’ Cunning and Keelan Molloy are likely to start against Kerry while Ciaran Clarke and James McNaughton should be there or thereabouts with the totemic Neil McManus expected to assume the centre-forward berth.
In a recent challenge match with Tipperary, Antrim hit an impressive 2-28 but some unforced errors gifted Liam Sheedy's men several goals.
It seems only a minority of counties haven’t had a brush with Covid with Kerry boss Fintan O’Connor confirming earlier this month that one of his squad tested positive but the player hadn’t been training for the previous 12 days and therefore the squad was able to prepare as normal.
There hasn’t been a drum-roll felt as loud as this one in Antrim for a few years - and they should have enough to re-claim their place in Division One.