Saffrons travel west in search of redemption – By Brendan McTaggart
All-Ireland Senior Championship Qualifier – Round 1A
Antrim vs Sligo@ Markievicz Park. Saturday: 5pm
Referee: Fergal Kelly (Longford)
The joint management team of Gearóid Adams and Frank Fitzsimons take the Antrim senior footballers into the West on Saturday afternoon for the All-Ireland qualifiers. A trip to Markievicz Park lies ahead for the Saffrons and preparations are well under way for a battle against Sligo in the first round of the qualifiers.
Having succumbed to a chastening defeat to Donegal in the Ulster Championship in Ballybofey, it’s another away trip for the Saffrons and The Yeats County will again provide stern opposition for Antrim. Beaten All-Ireland finalists Mayo accounted for Sligo in the Connaught Championship by nine points and a score line 2-14 to 0-11 in McHale Park but it took 1-2 late in the game from Cillian O’Connor to give the Yew County breathing space and see off the Sligo challenge.
The sides have already met this season, Sligo travelling to Corrigan Park on match day three of the League. Eight points from CJ McGourty helped Antrim to their first win of the campaign and St John’s clubman Adams says he would settle for a similar outcome on Saturday afternoon: “This game is likely to go down to the wire. When Antrim and Sligo play each other there is always very little between the teams. They will probably start as slight favourites with home advantage but having already beaten them this year, it should give our guys the extra belief needed.” Adams joked: “We won by one point earlier this year and I’d be happy to leave Markievicz Park on Saturday with a similar outcome.”
The Donegal match was a harsh reality check for the Antrim. Apart from the opening 20-25 minutes, the Saffrons were outclassed and given a rude awakening as to the size of the gap between Division One and Division Three football. Adams gave us his analysis of the match, adding: “For the first quarter or maybe a little more it was all going to plan but the concession of the first goal really hurt us and our heads dropped. We had our chances though and if CJ and Matty (Fitzpatrick) taken their goal chances then it could have been a different story – that’s the difference at this level. Donegal had one goal chance in the first half and they were clinical.
“In our first six or seven attacks we scored four points but from the next five or six attacks we didn’t score, coming up short or hitting the woodwork, chances missed and when you play a team the calibre of Donegal you need everything to go your way and hope they have an off day.”
This Saturday it will be almost four weeks since their last match and Adams told us that they have been keen to move forward: “We gave the lads a couple of nights off after the Donegal match but called a meeting to see where we went from here. It was a meeting that being honest, we didn’t really know what to expect when we went into it from a management perspective. We went and everyone gave their thoughts on Ballybofey. It was a good, honest and open meeting where no-one held back and I think it was needed.
“We sided against having any challenge matches since the Donegal match. The squad has been strengthened with Conor Murray back from suspension and Ryan Murray back from injury. Owen Gallagher is closer to where he needs to be fitness wise as well so that’s all positive for us looking ahead to Saturday.
“With the increased numbers in training we thought that having in-house games would be more beneficial. When you have a squad of 30, you’re maybe only seeing 20 minutes of the players at a time. The in-house games have been played at high intensity and the lads definitely haven’t been holding back.”
Adams gave the Saffrons a clean bill of health ahead of the Sligo clash with Matthew Fitzpatrick back in full training after his ankle injury. With Owen Gallagher and the Murray brothers back and available for selection the Saffrons will certainly be in a stronger position than they were prior to the Ulster Championship and Adams told us that Saturday’s match will come down to fine margins: “It could come down to who has dealt with their defeat in the best manner. Who has recovered most and who wants to push on. The lads are in good form at the minute and the training has been excellent. We’re ready for another tight game and are hopeful that we’ll come out on the right side.”