McKenna Cup Round 2
Antrim v Donegal
Following their good win over Down in round 1 of the McKenna Cup at Pairc Esler on Tuesday night, Antrim welcome Donegal to Kelly Park, Portglenone on Saturday knowing that a win would see them advance to the play-off stages of the competition.
Donegal started their McKenna campaign over the Mourne men with a 1-13 to 2-8 win in Ballybofey last weekend with the visitors taking an early lead from a Barry O’Hagan pointed free.
The sides were level at 0-3 each with Barry O’Hagan leading the way for Down and Conor O’Donnell and Paddy McBrearty on target for the Tir Conaill men and Donegal moved four ahead before an Andrew Gilmore goal brought Down right back into contention as half time approached.
The visitors trailed by two, 0-9 to1-4 at half time before a goal from Tony McClenaghan moved the hosts 1-10 to 1-6 ahead but an Owen Morgan goal gave the visitors the lead after 21 minutes.
Ciaran Thompson replied immediately with a point to equalise and Peadar Morgan and Paddy McBrearty added points to see Donegal home by two points and they will travel to Portglenone on Saturday confident that they can overcome Antrim and secure top spot in the group.
Enda McGinley’s Saffrons will go into Saturday’s clash with the Tir Conaill men, buoyed by their win on Tuesday night and eager to gauge their progress against one of the Ulster giants and on Tuesday night’s performance they are capable of setting Declan Bonner’s side a stiff test.
At this stage of the season much will depend on how strong the visitors will field and it is likely that Donegal will give a number of their regulars, who didn’t play against Down a run out.
Antrim too could make changes to the side who performed so well at Pairc Esler with Conor and Ryan Murray, Dermot McAleese, Barry McCormick, Patrick McCormick and James McAuley, who were all introduced as second half substitutes and Michael Byrne, Eoin Hynds, Darren McCormick and Martin Johnston (if fit) all hoping for a start.
Conor Stewart, Seamus McGarry and Eunan Walsh were missing on Tuesday night because of Covid and may come into the reckoning depending on their fitness while Antrim may rest some of their older players in an effort to avoid injury with the league opener just around the corner.
After the Down game the Saffron Gael spoke to Antrim coach, Stephen O’Neill and the former Tyrone All Star expressed his satisfaction with his side’s performance and progress to date.
Stevie O’Neill said “We are delighted. It is never easy to come up to Newry to get a result and, thankfully, we got that.
“We tried our best maybe not to win with the amount of wides we were kicking, but we managed to hold strong and survive the Down fight-back.
The new lads and the older lads are working well together and they have been training well over the last number of weeks.
It is nice to see that the work they are doing on the training pitch is starting to pay dividends.
“We’ve a lot to work on still and we’ve Donegal now on Saturday so we’ll look to up the ante and challenge the lads to put up a good performance again.
“The conditions were excellent and the pitch was in great shape as usual down here in Páirc Esler.
“It is nice to be able to say that at this time of the year.”
Saffron Gael: We had a bit of luck at the end with the ball hitting Ricky Johnston before going over the bar?
“We definitely did and it was nice to see it going over the bar because I felt we deserved the result and it gives us a wee boost to build on that.”
Saffron Gael: We had no McKenna Cup last year with a new management, how useful are games v Down and Donegal ahead of our Division 3 campaign?
“It is massive because obviously Division Three is going to be very tight. It is a massive step up to what we were playing last year.
“To play against some of the top teams in Ulster in the McKenna Cup is a massive challenge for Antrim and it is a massive challenge for the boys to pit themselves against that and really see where they can be.
“I often say to the lads that it is a great time to be playing Gaelic football because the set-ups now are so professional with strength and conditioning, video analysis – it is a great time to play and you can really make the best of yourself.
“Playing in the McKenna Cup is a brilliant challenge for ourselves and we’ll definitely relish it as it gives us good preparation for Fermanagh.
Saffron Gael: What’s the injury update and squad latest news
“Just a bit of tightness. We’ll regroup and have a light training session on Thursday.
“There will be a few changes maybe. It is good to have a few games and you can try out new men and give them a bit of game time. It is good that you can now use as many subs as you like – it gives everyone some time on the field.
It is a big positive (so many debutants). A few men left the panel after last year and that happens in every panel. It is good that the new men came in and they’ve been given their chance and they are definitely taking it and pushing on well. That pushes everyone on in the middle age bracket and the older age bracket too and everyone is fighting for their place.”
Donegal will set Antrim a serious challenge on Saturday and for Antrim it will be as much about performance as about the result but with their opening game against Fermanagh in division 3 just around the corner and a possible place in the knockout stages of the McKenna Cup at stake, don’t rule out an upset.