Ulster U21 Hurling Championship
Antrim vs Derry
Throw In: 7:30pm
Referee: James Clarke (Cavan)
By Brendan McTaggart
Antrim travel to Owenbeg on Wednesday evening to take on Derry in the Semi-Final of this years U21 hurling championship. The Saffrons have been drenched in success when it comes to the U21 grade in Ulster having failed to reach the provincial decider just six times since the competitions inception in 1964, the most recent of those in 2008 after an ill-fated ‘league’ trial.
They have played the Oakleaf men in the decider for the last two years with Antrim winning by four and five point margins on both occasions and it is expected that it will be another titanic battle in the Derry Centre of Excellence.
The Oakleaf men will be backboned by a contingent of talent from Slaughtneil with the plenty of the U21 team having tasted success in the Nicky Rackard Cup, the Oakleaf men will be coming into Wednesday’s Semi-Final high in confidence.
Plenty have already been said about Antrim’s preparations for the U21 Championship or the lack thereof. Loughgiel clubman Conor ‘Gooch’ Gillan and Anton McCaffrey from St Gall’s have answered the call for the Saffrons and the St Louis Grammar school teacher told us that although it hasn’t been perfect preparations, he sees plenty of reason for optimism in the Saffron ranks: “It’s never easy at underage level with exams and at U21 level some players have work commitments but with the Dunsilly facility now it’s certainly helped us to get training well underway. When the seniors were out training we joined in with them and played in-house games and the same with the seniors. Dunsilly allows that to happen and it’s what the county has been crying out for. It’s the ideal location for everyone concerned, that’s north Antrim and the City. I can remember from my own days having to travel to the City or Jordanstown and it wasn’t easy but having Dunsilly there has been of huge benefit.”
Gooch has played a helping hand in St Louis recent success at Mageean Cup level and he told us that it’s through the schools that have given him the greatest grasp of his squad: “If we didn’t coach them then we came up against them with St Louis. I had an idea of the quality at our disposal before we took over. You only have to look at a few of our recent training sessions. I think there was as many as 10 players involved with the recent Cushendall and Loughgiel matches in the Feis and league. Practically all of the squad are either starting or pushing for a starting place in their clubs at senior level and that bodes well for us.” Gillan added: “That being said, we do have a fairly young squad. I think all but maybe four or five are U21 next year again but they’ve shown playing for their clubs at senior level that they are ready for this now.”
When these teams played each other in the minor championship three years ago, Antrim were victorious by a score line of 2-12 to 1-9 but the following year the Slaughtneil emergence began. A club minor title at provincial level went to the Robbies in 2015 with the Derry men accounting for Dunloy in the Final at Ballinascreen and Gooch told us that they are weary of the threat that Colly McGurk’s men will pose on Wednesday night: “We don’t know an awful lot about them but when we piece together what we do know it gives us some perspective. Slaughtneil beat an all-conquering Dunloy team in the Ulster minor final two years ago and we’re expecting a lot of that team to be involved. We’ve had plenty of matches with St Pat’s Maghera in years as well at Mageean level so we’ll be taking nothing for granted I can assure you that.”
The Saffrons will line out with a who’s who of the rising talent within the county. Gerard Walsh and Deaglan Murphy have been playing senior hurling for Rossa for the last three years while Cathal McMullan and James McNaughton have been hugely impressive in recent times for Loughgiel while Conal Cunning and Eamon Smith have nailed down starting berths for the Cuchullains this season. I would expect an Antrim victory on Wednesday evening by around five or six points but Derry will provide stern resistance.