Sunday 1-30 (Glenavy)
Having performed reasonably well against Monaghan in Clones before finally succumbing to an eight point defeat Antrim face another stiff challenge when they take on Armagh in Glenavy this Sunday. When the draw was made Monaghan and Sunday’s opponents, Armagh looked odds on favourites to emerge from a group that includes Antrim and St. Mary’s and the Orchard opened with a resounding victory over the teacher training college scoring 6-17 in the process.
Antrim performed well in periods against the Farney County, leading 0-5 to 0-3 at one stage of the opening half before being hit with a flurry of scores to trail 0-12 to 0-6 at half time. When Monaghan opened their second half account with another 1-1 the Saffrons looked on course for a hammering but they rallied with a fisted Niall Delargy goal and three points from Ryan Murray.
In the end Monaghan won comfortably but manager Lenny Harbison will take positives from that performance and sees the McKenna Cup primarily as preparation for the forthcoming National league campaign with promotion from division 4 Antrim’s main objective.
Defections through retirement, injuries and work commitments has deprived the former St. Gall’s All Ireland winning supremo of a number of key players with none of the Championship winning Cargin players in the present panel.
Conor Murray is missing through an injury sustained in last year’s qualifiers against Offaly in Tullamore, Paddy McAleer has taken up a teaching post Qatar and will not be available this year, long serving keeper Chris Kerr has called it a day while St. Enda’s successful Ulster Intermediate journey has deprived the Saffrons of a number of players who won’t return until their All Ireland campaign concludes.
Harbison has called up a number of new faces to his squad with Moneyglass’ Patrick McCormick and Darren McCormick from Tir na nOg making their debuts in Clones and Andrew Sweeney (St. Jude’s) Owen McKeown (Lamh Dhearg), Fergal Burke (Creggan), Patrick Finnegan (St. Brigid’s) and Eoin McCabe (Lamh Dhearg) all getting valuable game time.
Declan Lynch, Jack Dowling and Martin Johnston have returned to the panel with Paddy Nugent back on board to replace Kerr in the number one jersey so the panel is not without experience and Niall Delargy, Patrick Gallagher, Conor Hamill, Paddy Nugent, Paddy McBride, Mark Sweeney Matt Fitzpatrick , Michael McCarry, Colum Duffin and Ricki Johnston are seasoned campaigners.
Ryan Murray was Antrim’s outstanding performer against Monaghan and his scores could be vital if Antrim are to provide Armagh with a strong challenge on Sunday while Fitzpatrick and McBride are others who can trouble the Orchard defence.
Armagh will arrive in Glenavy full of confidence and Crossmaglen’s charismatic forward Jamie Clarke could return to the side after missing all of 2018 due to travels. Clarke played for New York in the 2018 championship so was unavailable to the Orchard County at the business end of the year.
Armagh gained promotion from division 3 last year and had a great run in the All Ireland qualifiers before losing to Roscommon and will travel to Glenavy with a strong panel which should include Oisin and Rian O’Neill, James Morgan, Stephan Campbell, Ethan Rafferty, Andrew Murnin, Aiden Forker and Charlie Vernon amongst the rich vein of talent Kieran McGeeney has at his disposal.
Armagh will arrive at Chapel Hill as firm favourites and may have too much in their armoury for their hosts but if Antrim were to get a bit of early success then the result could be tighter than some pundits predict.