MAY the fourth be with you? No, don’t check your calendar, it’s still February – but even so early in the campaign this is a crucial clash for these two counties setting sights on that particular place.
The real ‘Star Wars’ will be fought out by others, with Limerick, Tipperary, and Galway surely set to comprise the top three, while Westmeath, the other team in this section, will feel they can avoid bottom spot.
So both Antrim and Dublin know that defeat in this encounter would inflict serious damage on their hopes of becoming the seventh side in next year’s new-look Division 1A. Even fourth place would only give half a chance, as the same finisher from this year’s 1A might have a better record.
On the upside, there’s no massive downside to defeat. In a sense there’s no jeopardy of relegation, although next year’s 1B will be a second tier grouping, albeit one that might be better suited to the development of Antrim.
Dubs manager Micheal Donoghue sent out a side with eight of their last Championship starters last weekend and they battled back to within four points after a slow start against Tipperary before succumbing to an 11-point loss, 0-22 to 2-27.
Antrim’s experience against even a very experimental Limerick side – with only four of last year’s All-Ireland Final starting line-up involved – was much more chastening, hammered by 27 points, 1-36 to 1-9.
Obviously the Saffrons are missing plenty of players, including a number of Dunloy stars as well as a lengthy injury list, but boss Darren Gleeson was making no excuses, preferring to praise the attitude of newcomers:
“There are young guys bursting to get in. We’ve been working very closely with our underage teams over the last few years for a reason – to see what kind of people they are, how motivated they are to play inter-county hurling. We’re seeing that all the time.”
“The League is a breeding ground, and education ground. We had nine out of the 11 substitutes against Limerick who are either on the U20 panel this year or were on it last year. It’s a road test.”
Back on the home turf of Corrigan Park, Antrim will surely fare better in more familiar surroundings, although there will still be that host of familiar faces missing.
“You just get on with it,” declares Gleeson, who talked up the contributions of Tiernan Smith – re-purposed as a goalkeeper, and Rory McCloskey at full-back. Half-forwards Rian McMullan and Aodhan O’Brien were also name-checked by the boss as among those stepping up to fill the current leadership void, as well as last weekend’s goalscorer Fred McCurry.
Niall McKenna of Sarsfield’s may be able to play some part against the Dubs, but much may depend on attackers Conor Cunning and Conor McCann against a Dublin defence that included debutants Mark Grogan and Darragh Power against Tipp. The visitors will look to inside forward Diarmuid O Dulaing for scores if Donal Burke remains among their absentees.
No matter who lines out, Gleeson is confident that Antrim’s performances will improve after difficulties in preparation for the League:
“I think come the end of the National League and the start of the Championship there’ll be a really exciting energy about our group.
“You also have to factor in we were playing National League in the first week of February – January is a difficult month for everybody, facilities are packed every night, trying to get a slot on an astroturf field, we’re no different – so it’s a difficult 10 or 12 days leading into the start of the National League, but the guys have done as much as they can.”
What they do against Dublin is likely to determine their fate for next year’s League – and whether there’s been sufficient improvement in a week, or if the home team is strengthened, remains to be seen.