Today Patrick McIlwaine looks at Antrim footballers games in the early part of the season before it was all brought to an abrupt halt by the dreaded Covid 19
As we move into 2021 and look forward with hope for an end to Covid-19 we look back to 2020 and a year that has been rightly described as a year like no other.
Today we take a look back at the football and it was Antrim County footballers who got the ball rolling with a McKenna Cup game against Fermanagh in Ahoghill and it augured well for Lenny Harbinson’s Saffrons when his division 4 charges defeated a Fermanagh side who were playing their football in division 2.
The visitors looked to be heading for a first victory of the season as they led Antrim going down the home straight but a couple of superb goals from Paddy McBride turned the game on its head and gave Antrim a great start to the season.
The following Wednesday night Antrim travelled to Newry to face Down in the same competition and performed well but never really looked like adding the Mourne scalp to that of Fermanagh. Antrim made quite a number of changes from the side who defeated Fermanagh in Ahoghill with Creggan’s Oisin Kerr, Mark Gardner of Gaeil Baile Shiomoin and Eamon Fyfe of Glenravel making their county debuts.
The Saffrons matched the Mourne men for a good part of the contest but Down struck with first half goals from Barry O’Hagan and Corey Quinn to leave the visitors trailing by seven at half time. Both sides played the possession game and slow methodical build ups were the order of the night.
Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann led the Antrim attack well as the visitors used the ‘Mark’ to good effect and Lenny Harbinson’s side were still hanging in there with nine minutes remaining when they trailed by only four points after enjoying a good spell on top.
Significantly though Down seemed to find an extra gear as the Saffrons started to tire and they hit a flurry of points to pull clear in the dying minutes with Barry O’Hagan, Corey Quinn and substitute Liam Kerr hitting some excellent scores.
Down went on to defeat Fermanagh to top the group and thus ending Antrim’s interest in the McKenna Cup but the general feeling within the county was that Antrim were in good shape going into their division 4 league campaign.
The following Saturday the Antrim U20’s entertained Louth at Dunsilly in their first outing in the league. Hugh McGettigan’s side were to go on to have an impressive season with a championship win over Derry at the Dub before suffering a semi-final defeat to eventual winners Tyrone.
Only a couple of points separated the Saffrons and the Red Hands in terrible conditions at Lavey and as Enda McGinley eluded to in his recent interview with the Saffron Gael, the side contained a number of players who should have a great future at Senior level.
It was down to division 4 and a league opener with Wexford in Glenavy and Antrim made an impressive opening to their league campaign with a good win over their Leinster opponents. It was nip and tuck during the opening half but a goal from Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann early in the second half swung it Antrim’s way. The big man got on the end of a tantalising cross to palm to the net while the returning Paddy Cunningham showed glimpses of what Antrim had been missing during his lengthy absence from the Saffron jersey.
The final result: Antrim 3-10 Wexford 0-13
That game was on the 26th January and a week later Antrim travelled to Marievicz Park to take on Sligo, a fixture that had thrown up plenty of problems in the past and this one proved to be no different.
Antrim went down 0-15 to 0-14 in a tight affair and were perhaps unfortunate not to take something from the fixture and it was one of a number of results that would ultimately cost them a promotion place come end of season.
Still it was still looking good for Lenny Harbinson’s men when they travelled to Ruislip to face London in McGovern Park. In a day that was not conducive to good football it was Portglenone’s Dermot McAleese who put himself into contention for a regular start in the side as Antrim prevailed to defeat the exiles 0-14 to 0-10.
Hugh McGettigan’s U20’s had been going well in the league but the Rossa man had one eye firmly fixed on the Ulster championship and a good crowd attended their quarter-final meeting with Derry at the Dub.
It’s rarely that Antrim start these games as favourites and this one was no different but the Saffrons made little of the underdogs tag to record an excellent win over the Oak Leaf boys to set up a semi-final meeting with hot favourites Tyrone.
On Sunday the 23d February it was back to National Football League action for Antrim and the visit of Carlow to Glenavy and the Leinster side looked there for the taking following a poor start to their league campaign.
Carlow, like Sligo have never proved to be an easy fixtures for Antrim however and their over physical approach rattled Antrim in a poor opening half where the visitors racked up a healthy half time lead.
Antrim rang the changes for the second half and the introduction of Odhran Eastwood and Michael McCann turned the game on its head with Eastwood hitting a number of excellent points to get the Saffrons back into contention and McCann bringing organisation and method around mid-field.
It looked like the home side would push on and take both points but in the end had to settle for a 0-11 to 1-8 draw but in a dog eat dog division promotion still looked within their grasp.
Antrim’s U20’s had raised a few eyebrows by defeating Derry in their Ulster Championship opener against Derry but now faced Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final and Lavey was the venue for a semi-final that would be played in artic conditions at the county Derry venue.
The Saffrons matched the eventual Ulster championship all the way and indeed were carrying the fight to Tyrone at the death but the scores they needed just wouldn’t come and in the end they went down fighting to a very good Tyrone side.
Even in defeat there was much to take heart from in the performances of McGettigan’s side this year and Antrim showed that with the right preparation and commitment we are capable of competing with the best.
It was back to the National League as league leaders Limerick visited Portglenone on the 1st March and nothing less than a win would suffice for an Antrim side who had already dropped three points but it looked like a tall order against a Limerick side that had been setting the division alight.
On a beautiful March Sunday Antrim turned the form book on its head as they ran the visitors ragged with Odhran Eastwood again very much to the fore in attack as the Saffrons dominated from start to finish to run out 2-21 to 1-12 winners.
Antrim were very much back in the promotion race and there was a feel good factor within the county, our hurlers were beating everything in their path, and a win in their next fixture away to Wicklow would almost certainly guarantee promotion for the Antrim footballers.
There was a real buzz about the county as Lenny’s side prepared for the long journey South but, as in life, a week is a long time in football and on the eve of the visit we were informed that Covid-19 had brought a premature end to Gaelic games for the unforeseeable future.
Later in the week we will resume our look back at 2020 as the club action finally got underway before going back to the county scene. We will also take a look at the hurling scene in Antrim in 2020 and the magnificent achievements of our county hurlers as well as reviewing the club hurling scene.