Ulster SFC Quarter-Final
Armagh v Antrim
Athletic Grounds Sunday 3-30
Antrim travel to the Athletic Grounds this Sunday as rank outsiders as they take on an Armagh side who have been turning in some very good performances this year in division 1 of the National League. The Orchard lost narrowly to Tyrone, defeated Monaghan and drew with Donegal before securing division 1 status for another year when they beat Roscommon in a play-off at the Athletic Grounds.
On paper this weekend’s meeting with Antrim looks like a formality for Kieran McGeeney’s side and anything other than a convincing victory would be greeted as something of a surprise in most quarters.
Their opponents on Sunday, Antrim have been playing their football in division 4 this year but under the new management team of Enda McGinley, Stephen O’Neill and Sean Kelly they have enjoyed a very successful campaign which culminated in promotion to division 3.
Antrim began this year’s league campaign with a hard fought victory away to Louth where they finished strongly to win by the minimum. They followed that up with a win over Offaly, again there was only one point separating the sides at the final whistle and with a play-off place already secured they welcomed Leitrim to Corrigan for their final group game.
Leading by 10 points at one stage and seemingly coasting, Antrim made a number of substitutions and appeared to take their eye of the ball. Disaster threatened as the visitors struck three late goals to draw level but the Saffrons found the resilience that has been part of their game all year and Paddy Cunningham and Tomas McCann struck late pressure points to secure victory.
And so it was on to Dungarven and a meeting with Waterford in the promotion play-offs and there was no such drama with Enda McGinley’s side emerging fairly convincing winners. Promotion was the Saffron’s target at the start of this campaign so it was-job done!
A great season to date! Pundits were left scratching their heads trying to recall the last time Antrim footballers had won four games in a row so it is maybe stating the obvious when I say, they have added a bit of consistency to their game this year.
Their promotion this year is all the more remarkable when you consider that Antrim started their league campaign in Haggardstown with three debutants in their side, Adam Loughran and Conor Stewart were part of last year’s U20 side while Rossa’s Michael Byrne made his debut in goal.
Byrne played in the opening two games with another of last year’s U20’s, Luke Mulholland taking over the net minding duties against Leitrim and Waterford.
At the time of writing the Antrim team has not been announced but I would expect it to be along similar lines to the one that beat Waterford. Rumour has it that Michael McCann is not far away from fitness following an injury which has kept him out of the National League campaign.
If McCann is fit to start or even come on as a substitute it would provide a major boost for Antrim but whatever the starting line-out the Saffrons go into this championship encounter with nothing to lose and if they produce their best then they are capable of asking questions of Armagh.
Kieran McGeeney will field a side littered with household names with Oisin and Ryan O’Neill, Niall Grimley, Jemar Hall, Rory Grugan, Andrew Murnan and Stephan Campbell all potential match winners on their day.
The Saffrons will be backboned by quite a number of experienced campaigners themselves and Ricki Johnston, James Laverty, Conor and Ryan Murray, Niall McKeever, Peter Healey, the McCann’s and Paddy Cunningham have seen it all before.
Armagh will start as odds-on favourites and rightly so but underdogs do win championship games and last year Antrim came mighty close to beating eventual Ulster champions, Cavan in the opening round in Breffni Park
THE Northern Ireland Executive’s decision to increase the numbers allowed at sporting events means that 1700 supporters will now watch the Ulster Championship quarter-final between Armagh and Antrim at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday and this will only serve to add to the atmosphere of what should be a good game.
Just how many Antrim supporters will be able to get their hands on one of those tickets remains to be seen but if Enda McGinley’s side are still hanging in there in the closing stages then I’m very sure you will hear them roaring on their side in anticipation of a famous victory.
THe Armagh team was announced during the week