One More Hurdle for the Ultimate Christmas Present

By Brendan McTaggart

November 30th, 2019.  The date Darren Gleeson’s men started their 2020 campaign.  A resounding 18 point win over Meath in Navan.  The wheels were put in motion for what has been a year like no other, in more ways than one.

January 12th, 2020.  The last time Antrim tasted defeat.  It was Navan again but this time it was Faithful opposition.  A one point defeat but a glimpse of what was to come.  They may not have been firing on all cylinders on the day but a late Dan McCloskey goal brought them to the brink of what seemed like an unlikely victory.  The spirit, the fight, the desire was already there.

Antrim and Offaly in the Kehoe Cup final in January

The league followed.  A slow start against Wicklow and Mayo before mighty performances against Meath and Kerry sealed a final spot.  Two games in Tullamore, six months apart with the promise of a Croke Park league final come and gone.  Covid looked to destroy everything, but the GAA was resolute with other thoughts.  Antrim took the opportunity with rabid passion, hunger and desire against the Kingdom. 

Promotion was sealed.  A mighty day for the fans of the Saffrons.  The terraces and stands were empty but these boys were playing for the club, their parishes, their families and their county.  Showing immense pride in that fabled Saffron jersey.

Bumps on the road before the McDonagh Cup began.  Covid and doubt.  They have gone hand in hand this year but Antrim stood resolute.  Westmeath come and gone, a trip to Carlow where they pulled the rabbit out of the hat before thy Kingdom cometh to Corrigan Park for a third match of the year.  Another Antrim win and a debut spot in the McDonagh final was all but sealed.  We just had to avoid a catastrophe against Meath in Navan.  Let’s face it, in the year that’s been, no one would have ruled it out.

No one that is, apart from this current Antrim squad.  Changes were made, belief was instilled even further in the squad and they didn’t let us down.  A relentless performance against the Royals were Antrim racked up another big win and continued their momentum.

Kerry await for a fourth time this season.  It certainly is a rarity on the intercounty scene for two teams to meet four times in the one calendar year but this is 2020, anything can and has happened.  These teams will know each other inside out by now.  Antrim know the threats of Shane Conway, Mikey Boyle, Shane Nolan and the defensive capabilities of Bryan Murphy, Jason Diggins and Fionan Mackessy.

The Saffron journey hasn’t really been the usual rollercoaster we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, it’s more akin to a juggernaut in 2020.  They have stepped up in their ‘professionalism’ and fine-tuned the good work of predeceasing management and the results have followed on the pitch.  In years gone by they were capable of beating anyone on their day, the problem was having enough of ‘those days’ to make an impact.  That problem looks to have been dealt with like every other problem put in front of the management and players this year.

Niall McKenna in action for Antrim v Carlow at Netwatch Dr Cullen Park in October

The only thing missing is the fans.  Everyone with any kind of Saffron in their being would have loved to be part of this McDonagh Cup campaign.  I’ve been in an extremely privileged position to have witnessed every minute of this teams journey across the country under Darren’s tutelage since that cold November day in Navan against Meath and as an Antrim man I am unbelievably proud of the team they have become. 

This team have been through it all and more this year.  They have dealt with everything that has come their way and moved on to the next.  They have shown no signs of letting up and embraced every challenge with full focus and never looking beyond.  They deserve to be in Croke Park, they deserve to be playing on the biggest Sunday in the hurling calendar.  They deserve our support in any way we can.

1989 was a generation ago.  As an 8 year old I can remember being with my godfather for the big match God rest him, a massive Bellaghy and Derry man and the biggest wind up merchant you would ever have met.  “English will beat you’s on your own” – a twinkle in his eye and a cheeky smile that hasn’t left my thoughts 31 years later.  Uncle Sean wasn’t going to dampen my pride in watching Antrim play in an All-Ireland final.  An example that memories truly are made from days like these.

Current Antrim selector Gary O’Kane in action against Tipperary in the 1989 All Ireland Senior final in Croke Park.

In a year like no other, it’s already been a season to remember.  The GAA have delivered under the most testing of times and unprecedented circumstances.  Antrim GAA have also delivered.  Darren Gleeson and his band of heroes have one more hurdle to negotiate before claiming the ultimate Saffron Christmas present.  The McDonagh Cup would be a welcome addition to the Saffron County.  We’ll welcome him with open arms.

In Croke Park, there are no hiding places.  In Croke Park, history is written and heroes made.  Antrim victories in Croke Park have been few and far between over the years. Fifty years ago the Saffrons won the Intermediate title, their first major hurling final win at headquarters and with all the plans to celebrate the anniversary of that victory scuppered because of Covid it would be a great way to remember it.

It’s time to add another chapter to the Saffron GAA.

The Antrim team who won the All Ireland Intermediate title in 1970

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