Underdogs Antrim can cause an upset

Ulster MFC Quarter-Final

Antrim V Monaghan (holders)

Corrigan Park (Sunday 1pm)

Antrim head into Sunday’s Ulster Minor Football quarter-final against holders Monaghan as underdogs but the underdog tag is unlikely to faze manager Paddy Kelly or his team. The Farney lads are going for their third title in a row and have been tipped as favourites to retain their title in some quarters.

The sides were due to meet back in late October but the championship was suspended due to Covid-19 and it was unclear at the time if there would be an Ulster Minor championship this year but thankfully its back to action this weekend for all the Ulster counties except Cavan.

The Breffni lads were eliminated from the tournament by Monaghan in a preliminary round game prior to lockdown so Mark Counihan’s side are the only one to have seen championship action this year but just how much of an advantage that run-out will have provided remains to be seen.

That win came back on October 17th with Monaghan and Antrim fixed to meet in Toome in the first round proper at the start of November but Covid-19 put everything on hold before last week’s announcement that it was all systems go again.

Sunday’s game has been fixed for Corrigan Park. The sides met at the same venue last year and Antrim pushed the Farney side all the way before going down by a point to the eventual Ulster champions.

Monaghan manager, Mark Counihan referred to that game this week when he spoke about Sunday’s fixture pointing out that last year’s meeting was to prove his side’s toughest fixture of an ultimately successful campaign so there is unlikely to be any complacency as they head to the Whiterock for Sunday’s game.

The visitors retain a number of individuals from last year’s championship winning side with Connor Eccles, Ethan Graham, Michael Hamill and Stephen Mooney having all played in the minor team in 2019. Stephen Mooney looks like the one that the Antrim defence will have to keep a tight rein on with Mooney scoring 1-7 of Monaghans 1-8 total against Cavan.

Antrim have prepared well for Sunday’s game, training 3 times per week since the competition was re-fixed, using the floodlit pitch at Cargin weeknights and Dunsilly on Saturdays, with the players working on their own individual programmes over the lock down periods

Monaghan will have a distinct size advantage over Antrim.  They are a big physical team but Antrim manager, Paddy Kelly is quietly confident that his side can cause an upset this weekend.

Antrim are boosted by the return of Conchuir Johnston from injury. The Cargin player had been suffering from an ankle injury sustained in the county minor final. It’s not such good news for Shaun O’Callaghan (All Saints) and Conchur Adams (St Johns) however. Both are ruled out through injury while Con Magee’s Ryan McQuillan faces a late fitness test as he has been undergoing treatment for a thigh injury.

Antrim will look to players like Dan McNicholl (Casements) who captains the side and keeper, Shea Laverty (Erins Own) while their strongest line appears to be their half back line with Conail McGirr (St Galls) Eoin Gough (St James) and Patrick Ferris (All Saints) forming a strong unit.

Eunan Quinn at midfield is a tremendous fielder of the ball and can give the Saffrons a firm foothold in this department. Up front Barra McCaffrey (Rossa) is a stylish, lively and very smart forward, alongside the pace of Ronan McKillop (All Saints) and Sean Duffin (Kickhams), and this unit can give Monaghan plenty to think about.

 The “bomber” Calum Higgins (Con Magee’s) is the perfect target man and his partnership with Conchuir Johnston could be a major factor if Antrim are to beat the holders.

When I spoke to Paddy Kelly this week the Antrim manager was upbeat about his side’s chances. “Monaghan are huge favourites for this game, no one really gives us a chance of a win outside of ourselves. I really believe the lads can win on Sunday, they have worked as hard as any other county over the last 3 years in preparation for this day, and we are delighted the lads will get the chance to take to the field”.

The Rasharkin man has been at the Antrim helm now for a number of years and has left no stone unturned as he prepares his side for Sunday’s clash in Corrigan. He has a strong backroom team in Donal Laverty, (Moneyglass) and Sean McKenna who is managing Drumaness this year. Peter McKeever (Clonoe) and Cathal McMullan (Rasharkin) have been added to the coaching staff while Andrew Hasson and Tomas McCann have provided specialist goalkeeping and free taking coaching to the side.

As I said, Monaghan will start this game as firm favourites but the underdogs tag is nothing new to Antrim sides. Antrim were going well before the lockdown with victories over Down and Armagh but like everyone else all that pre-season work has gone out the window now.

The biggest issue is that the team haven’t played a game of any kind since March as they had several challenge games cancelled as the rules changed seemingly week on week.

Never the less those wins over Down and Armagh would suggest that this is a good Antrim side with quite a number of them having been around the panel for a number of years and if they can get off to a good start and shake off the early season rust then don’t be surprised if they come out of Corrigan with a win on Sunday.

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