Antrim must reach new heights as Cork come to Corrigan
All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-finals: Antrim v Cork (today, Corrigan Park, 2pm – live on GAAGO)
IT might be from a bygone era that loose talk or dramatic proclamations feed into pre-match fervour behind closed doors, especially with a huge Championship encounter looming on the horizon. But motivation can come in many forms.
At Corrigan Park this afternoon, Antrim – that’s Division One Antrim – take on Munster heavyweights Cork in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final, with the winner facing Henry Shefflin’s Galway in next week’s quarter-final.
On the other side of the draw, Clare lie in wait for the winners of today’s other preliminary quarter-final between Kerry and Wexford at Austin Stack Park... except, for the cynics amongst us studying shots from a photocall to launch the All-Ireland SHC series earlier this week, those pairings appear already set.
There, looking mean and moody before the picturesque ruins of Loughmore Castle, stands Limerick’s Mike Casey, clasping the Liam MacCarthy Cup. To his left are Cork’s Robert Downey and Galway’s Gearóid McInerney – y’know, ahead of their big game next weekend – then, to his right, Kilkenny’s Richie Reid, Wexford’s Lee Chin and Cathal Malone of Clare.
There is no representative of either of last weekend’s Joe McDonagh Cup finalists, invites presumably lost in the post.
Dinny Cahill’s incendiary comments ahead of Antrim’s 2004 Championship clash with the Rebels got a good airing going into today’s renewal, but if that image of the ‘remaining’ All-Ireland contenders isn’t plastered on the walls of changing rooms in west Belfast and Tralee today then we truly are living in an enlightened age.
The Saffrons may be 12/1 with the bookmakers but, having rubbed shoulders - and more than held their own - with the likes of Clare, Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford and Dublin in the past 18 months, Cork should hold no fear for Darren Gleeson’s men, especially in the claustrophobic confines of Corrigan Park.
After last week’s McDonagh Cup triumph guaranteed a Leinster Championship shot next summer, and with Division One survival long secured, Antrim’s two main objectives for the year have already been achieved.
Welcoming last year’s All-Ireland finalists to town? Sure that’s bonus territory. The Saffrons can go out there with the burden of expectation alleviated from shoulder their shoulders, knowing they have nothing to lose, right?
“We have a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final to lose…”
This was Antrim assistant Johnny Campbell’s blunt response to a clumsily-worded question a few days ago. To buy into any of those schools of thought is to underestimate the cultural transformation that has underwritten the Saffrons’ steady progress.
By the Loughgiel man’s own admission, Antrim teams he played on would have gone into a game like today’s in hope more than expectation. Now there is a belief that pulling off what would be a major upset is far from beyond them.
Yet there is an undoubted reality to consider regarding the gap that still exists between Antrim and Cork. Over the past few months, Kieran Kingston’s men were going toe-to-toe with Limerick, Clare, Waterford and Tipp while Antrim were negotiating the challenges of Offaly, Down, Carlow and Meath.
And Championship is a major step up from League, as the Saffrons learned to their cost when hammered out the gate by Dublin last summer before Laois sent them back down to the McDonagh.
Last week’s second half collapse against Kerry was worrying, but should serve as a timely reminder going into today’s game. Carelessly giving away possession time and again, they paid a heavy price – and it could have been even worse.
Against a side of Cork’s quality, Antrim know can’t switch off for a second. Give the Rebels anything like the number of opportunities that were afforded the Kingdom and - even without sharpshooter Patrick Horgan, who has been replaced by Tim O’Mahony - this could get ugly.
Gleeson could deploy a sweeper in the face of what is to come, but that seems unlikely. A front-footed approach is what they know best, and Antrim are unlikely to deviate from that now. Defensively, therefore, everybody has to be on the money. No sloppiness, no mix-ups, no space for poor decision-making.
In the central third, the Saffrons possess the pace and athleticism to trouble most counties. They racked up 20 goals in five McDonagh games, with that threat evident again in a blistering first half at Croke Park again last Saturday.
Every opportunity must be gobbled up to keep pace with their illustrious opponents. Cork are huge favourites for a reason but, even if others believe the result is a foregone conclusion, the Rebels will not be so foolish.
Antrim: R Elliott; D Kearney, G Walsh, P Burke; J Maskey, E Campbell, C Bohill; K Molloy, M Bradley; J McNaughton, C McCann, C Clarke; C Cunning, N McManus, S Elliott
Cork: P Collins; D Cahalane, R Downey, S O’Donoghue; N O’Leary, C Joyce, M Coleman; D Fitzgibbon, L Meade; R O’Flynn, S Harnedy, S Kingston; T O’Mahony, A Connolly, C Lehane