Saffrons well in the hunt to add to their promotion as Brendan McTaggart gives his verdict on a busy resumption to the county season.
“Imagine what the display would have been like if we won.” John ‘Curly’ McIlwaine, 31st October 2020 as we made our way from Carlow on Saturday evening and the sky lit up with a magnificent array of fireworks. One of the many things I’ve missed about the delayed county season. Curly’s astonishing ability for a one liner and the rollercoaster ride that comes with following the Saffrons.
Saturday was another ride on the Big Dipper.
A first 35 minutes where they scored two goals, passed up on at least another couple but it was ok. We had the wind at our back and one point to the good. If there is one thing you can be sure of, you can never rest on your laurels when it comes to being an Antrim fan.
The Barrowsiders came roaring back and Antrim faltered. It looked like we were set for another glorious failure. A tale of what might have been or another tale of coming close but just not quite getting over the line.
This time it was different and as they have already shown in 2020, Darren Gleeson’s men kept going to the final whistle. A belief, a spirit, an unquestionable attitude and a side littered with desire and drive to succeed in an Antrim shirt.
Saturday was the third massive game in two weeks and having come off the back of a seven month sabbatical, it was always going to be a big ask to have consistency. The Kerry game was good, Westmeath was clinical and Saturday was gritty. Determined and full of guts against a side who we’ve had many a battle with in recent times.
What they have shown in these three games however, is the strength in depth of the squad. So often relied upon to lead the attack, Neil McManus has been a keen spectator since the resumption of the county season. He isn’t a million miles away from staking his case for a place in the starting 15 but it’s an attacking unit that has some serious options. Conor McCann has led superbly on the edge of the square and has scored a goal in the last five games but he brings much more than his ability to find the back of the net. He has been the perfect foil for the pace and agility of Conal Cunning, James McNaughton, Ciaran Clarke and the power, work rate and low centre of gravity of Dan McCloskey gives another dimension. When you have a player like Domhnall Nugent in the ranks, you always have a chance. He has the ability to do something different and he’s proved that time and again. Thinking back to last year’s McDonagh Cup opener against Meath in Pairc Tailteann, he scored a goal from a free where he had next to no back lift but he hit the sliotar so sweetly, the net rippled before anyone could raise their hurl. On Saturday he produced that bit of ‘outside of the box’ hurling when inside the box. When surrounded and when Antrim needed it. He’s a massive asset and helps shoulder some of the physical burden that has fallen on McCann and McManus. Another option.
Defensively, there has been very little variation. While injury and COVID has hit the forwards, we’ve been lucky to have a settled back seven. Against Kerry and Westmeath we got it right. The odd mistake here and there but a unit who communicated together and yielded very little. Carlow found some chinks in our defensive armour. Spaces opened up as we chased the game at the other end of the field and Carlow had the quality to make us pay. But, credit where it’s due, the management team made a change to help turn the tide. The introduction of Damon McMullan helped to quell the Carlow attack but they weren’t happy with how loose we were and the chances we were coughing up.
It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s actually far from it. Saturday was a reality check and it was against a side who have competed in Division One for the past two seasons and in the Leinster Championship last year. It was another step up from the previous two outings and while Antrim didn’t hit the heights or achieve the flowing hurling they produced previously, they did answer questions that were asked of them.
One player who maybe hasn’t got the plaudits his performances have deserved is Niall McKenna. Watching the Carlow game again and the Sarsfields man went through a savage amount of work while his directness, his pace and physicality caused them major problems. Looking back at the previous matches and it’s always been there while he chips in with a healthy contribution on the scoring front. McKenna has been one of Antrim’s most consistent and top performers and a superb asset for the side. How he rode those two massive hits before having the presence of mind to pick a pass to Nugent for his goal shows he has a hurling brain as well when and a calmness to execute a play when the game is in the melting pot.
But, it is only half time in the group stages and we have been here before. That being said, if you offered me three points from these opening two matches, I would have taken that in a heartbeat. Kerry are next with revenge in their heads and a score to settle. They have a stronger squad with the introduction of the Kilmoyley contingent since Antrim defeated them in the league decider and the Kingdom are sitting top of the group after two wins Meath and Westmeath.
The incentive is there though and the equation could not be more simple. A win against Kerry and against Meath in Navan, Antrim will play in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. The performances so far have shown all sides of this squad. The missing ingredient is consistency. If Gleeson can get that last piece in the Saffron jigsaw, 2020 might not be that bad a year after all.