Winning start a necessity as Antrim begin their league campaign

Allianz Hurling League Division 2A

Antrim vs Wicklow in Arklow

Throw in: 2pm

Referee: Chris Mooney (Dublin)

By Brendan McTaggart

Antrim begin their 2020 season in earnest on Sunday afternoon as they travel to the Garden County for their National League opener.  This will be their second successive season in 2a after failure to claim promotion in 2019, a campaign that saw an opening day defeat to Kerry by two points after playing the majority of the game with 14 men.  Darren Gleeson and his management team will be hoping for a smoother start to their campaign than that of 12 months ago.

A win in match day two against Meath kept Antrim in contention for promotion but those hopes were dashed with another narrow defeat to Westmeath in Mullingar.  This campaign sees them start with a trip to Wicklow before hosting Mayo in Fr Healy Park, Loughgiel.  Two matches that should see them siting with maximum points ahead of their mouth-watering tie against Offaly at Tullamore in three weeks’ time.

Neil McManus in December’s Kehoe Cup game against Wicklow

Having won the McGurk Cup after defeating Down in the final at The Dub, Antrim were beaten in the Kehoe Cup final by the Faithful County.  Some called it their first proper test of the season and on paper the result was a defeat, but there has been plenty of plus points and positives to take from their preseason form.

12 months ago, Antrim didn’t have the services of the Ruairi Og contingent for the majority of the league campaign.  In both cup competitions they have competed in this season, Paddy Burke, Neil McManus, Eoghan Campbell and Alex ‘The Goal’ Delargy have all featured prominently while the Johnston brothers (Ciaran and Conor) with club teammates Domhnall Nugent and Michael Bradley have certainly added to the squad.  If anything, the current Antrim squad is the strongest it’s been in quite some time.

Nigel Elliott’s absence from the squad will be a tough one to fill for the Saffrons.  He had been one of their strongest performers in recent seasons while Captain Conor McCann remains an injury doubt along with Conal Cunning and Eoin O’Neill.  The Dunloy duo have yet to feature in a Saffron shirt this season while McCann picked up a knock in the Kehoe Cup.

Michael Bradley in action against Wicklow in the Kehoe Cup in December

Sunday’s opponents will be no strangers to the Saffrons.  Antrim defeated Wicklow in the Kehoe Cup with a blistering display in the opening 20 minutes that saw them blow a tornado through the Garden County with James McNaughton the tormentor in chief.  17 of their 21 first half points coming from play in 35 minutes which saw them build a 21 point lead at the interval.  The second half was more procession like at Abbotstown on that Sunday in December and while Antrim will go into Sunday’s match as heavy favourites, they should expect a much different Wicklow.  They were promoted from 2B last year having been beaten once to Down in a campaign that saw them defeat Derry in their own backyard and again in a low scoring league final and while the twice Antrim have played them in recent times, both have been in the Kehoe Cup and lacking the intensity that should be there during the league.

A winning start is imperative for Gleeson and his team and a good performance will be required following the disappointment of their defeat to Offaly in the Kehoe Cup.  The two key matches that will determine Antrim’s promotion fate lay in Tullamore and Tralee, to ensure that however, they need two points on Sunday.

Domnhal Nugent in action against Wicklow

League Fixtures

Sun 2nd February

vs Mayo (Loughgiel)

Sun 16th February

vs Ofaly (Tullamore)

Sun 23rd February

vs Meath (Loughgiel)

Sun 1st March

vs Kerry (Tralee)

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