Brendan McTaggart speaks to Antrim Minor manager Hugh McGettigan in lead up to Sunday’s Ulster MFC semi-final
Antrim minor footballers travel to St Tiernach’s Park Clones on Sunday on the verge of a first Ulster Final since 2005. Their reward for Tiarnan McAteer’s extra time winner and an epic victory over Donegal is a first Ulster Semi-Final since 2015 and a showdown with provincial favourites Derry, themselves aiming for a third Ulster Final in succession.
The Oak Leaf men come into Sunday’s match having seen off the challenge of their Sperrin rivals Tyrone in the Quarter-Final and are favourites for the provincial crown once again. Antrim started their own Quarter-Final as underdogs and as team manager Hugh McGettigan told us, they are happy to be written off before a ball is kicked: “I think it (Donegal favourites) was a fair and proper assessment if I’m being honest. Donegal came into the match as Ulster Champions and still had plenty from last year’s squad to call upon. We had to play out of our skins to take that match to extra time.
“When you go into extra time it can become a bit of a lottery but the lads stood up to be counted and got over the line.
“We know Derry will start as favourites but we’re happy with that. People wrote us off coming into the Donegal match and we turned a few heads with that result. Hopefully we can do something similar on Sunday.”
Creggan man Tiarnan McAteer kicked what was the winning point but it was Naomh Brid clubman Ruairi Brolly whose introduction towards the end of normal time helped the Saffrons turn the tide. McGettigan told us that it was no surprise to his team: “We’re one of the few counties who mix the U17 squad with the minors. They had a match the week previous and Ruairi was playing well. We knew what Ruairi and a few other lads were capable off coming into the match. It was no surprise to us that he made an impact coming off the bench, that’s what we wanted him to do and he delivered when we needed most.”
Creggan forward Liam Quinn was once again in superb form for the Saffrons last time out, recording 0-7 overall causing the Donegal defence untold problems. If anything it magnified how much McGettigan’s side missed his talents last year against Donegal in the narrow defeat to the Tir Chonnail in the Ulster Championship. Quinn had hit 0-4 from play in the Preliminary round match against Fermanagh in the opening 20 minutes before suffering a broken ankle and ending his season early. McGettigan warned that Quinn will be a marked man ahead of the Semi-Final: “Who knows what would have happened had Liam been fit for the Donegal match last year but you can be sure that Derry will have their homework done on him. He was part of the St Mary’s team that won the MacRory Cup so they will know him inside out.”
Having won the Ulster League Shield in 2016, the young Saffrons didn’t fare as well this term but having defeated Donegal who did win the 2017 Shield, they will have increased confidence coming into Sunday’s last four match. Derry will pose a sterner examination of Antrim’s credentials having already recorded a victory over the Saffrons in 2017 and have a team backboned with MacRory Cup winners. McGettigan told us: “We played them in Ballymena during the Ulster League and they beat us by one point. They didn’t have any of the St Mary’s contingent though so we’re expecting an even tougher prospect on Sunday.
“They went on to reach the League Final whereas we didn’t even qualify for the Shield Final this year. Tyrone beat them in the Final and they turned them over in the Championship so they’ve shown improvement. We were a bit off the pace at the start of the season but I like to think that we’ve improved as the season has progressed.
“We watched them against Tyrone and they impressed us. They’re strong all over the pitch and had strength in depth as well. I would count them and Kerry as the favourites for the All-Ireland. They seem to have got things right now at minor level again in Derry, they’re aiming for three Ulster Finals in a row so we know we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
On his side’s preparations, McGettigan added: “As managers, we’re happy with how things are going. Myself, Carl (McCabe), Benny (Devlin), Brian (Gribbin), Seamus (oTuma), (Micheal McKay) and Columb (Walsh) have put in a lot of work throughout the year and it’s pleasing to get results out on the pitch like we did in Ballybofey.
“We’ve mainly used the four weeks since the Donegal match for recuperation. The Donegal match took its toll on the lads, they really emptied the tank and we couldn’t have asked for anything more from them. We had one challenge match against Sligo but with so many of the lads missing through exams and a few from niggling injuries it wasn’t very beneficial.
“The break has allowed us to clear a few injuries and we should have a clean bill of health for the weekend.”
The Donegal match will live long in the memory for those Saffrons who were in attendance in Ballybofey and McGettigan said that he would take the same again if it meant reaching an Ulster Final: “Results like that make it all worthwhile. Beating a team the calibre of Donegal gives not only us a lift but Antrim football in general.
“There are no secrets in either squad. They’ll have seen plenty of us as we have of them. I hope it doesn’t go to extra time but if we’re still in the mix towards the end of the hour and we have to go to extra time then so be it.”