Antrim can kick off their campaign with a win

Antrim v Offaly NFL Division 3

Corrigan Park  Sunday 2-00pm

Antrim kick off their 2023 National Football League division 3 campaign on Sunday when they entertain Offaly at Corrigan Park. It could prove a tough opener for new manager Andy McEntee and his side but I’m sure it is a game that the former Meath manager is looking forward to.

McEntee had a first chance to run his eye over his side in competitive action in the recent McKenna Cup with nearly all of his panel seeing action against Armagh at the Athletic Grounds and against Cavan in round 2 in Portglenone.

The Saffrons suffered a heavy defeat to Armagh but showed improvement on day two against Mickey Graham’s Cavan, a side they will meet in division 3 later in the programme. The Saffrons were eventually beaten by the Breffni Blues but McEntee will have a better idea of just what he has available to him for Sunday’s opener.

His options have been curtailed by quite a number of injuries or retirements from Enda McGinley’s panel from last year with Ricki and Martin Johnston, Michael and Thomas McCann, James Laverty, Conor Murray and Niall Delargy amongst the more experienced players unavailable.

Ryan Murray in action against Offaly in Tullamore in the qualifiers in 2018 and the Lamh Dhearg man will captain his side against the same opposition in the opening game of the NFL Division 3 at Corrigan on Sunday.

Rossa’s Michael Byrne looks to have made the number 1 jersey his own with outstanding performances against Armagh and Cavan while Cathal Hynds of Glenravel, Paddy Mervyn of Lamh Dhearg, Joe and Patrick Finnegan of St. Brigid’s, Oisin Lenehan of Aghagallon, Ronan Boyle, St. Brigid’s and Dominic McEnhill of Rossa are just some of the new faces hoping for a selection nod on Sunday.

Mick Byrne, Paddy McBride, Mark Jordan, Colum Duffin, Dermot McAleese, Kevin Small, Odhran Eastwood, James McAuley and captain, Ryan Murray can provide the experience that Antrim will need while Paddy McAleer of All Saints and Peter Healey of St. Enda’s missed out on McKenna Cup action through injury and can add to that experience if available.

Pat Shivers of Cargin and Conor Stewart of All Saints have emerged as serious Senior players in recent years and both are likely to start on Sunday as the Saffrons attempt to open their league campaign with a win

The return of Peter Healey to the Antrim side could add experience if the St. Enda’s man has crecovered from injury.

What of Offaly?

Offaly and Antrim haven’t crossed swords in competitive action since 2018 when they met in the qualifiers in Tullamore with the Leinster side running out winners in an entertaining game that Antrim controlled for most the first half.

A serious injury to Conor Murray, who was dominating at mid-field proved a blow that Antrim never recovered from and they eventually lost 2-20 to 1-15 to the home side.

Under the new management of Liam Kearns Offaly have made an impressive start in the O’Byrne Cup with a 1-9 to 0-7 win over Wicklow before raising more than a few eyebrows when they followed it up with a 0-11 to 0-8 win over Dublin in the same competition.

The ‘Dubs’ fielded an experimental side on that occasion but it still made punters sit up and take notice and it will give Kearn’s side a confidence boost for Sunday’s visit to Belfast.

Offaly were due to play Louth in the semi-final of the O’Byrne Cup last week but pulled out of the competition when they had sought a postponement, which would have required a new date for the final, but Louth were unwilling to accommodate the request.

Offaly made the drop from division 2 with Down at the end of 2022 but Nigel Dunne, Anton Sullivan, Rory Egan, Lee Pearson and Aaron Kellaghan have been in fine form in the O’Byrne Cup and will lead their challenge at Corrigan.

A good start to the campaign is important for Antrim if they are to be amongst the challengers for division 3 honours in a division that looks even more formidable that last year with Cavan, Down and Fermanagh joining Antrim as the four Ulster teams in the division and Tipperary, Longford and Westmeath making up the programme.

A good home support will be important if Antrim are to begin their campaign with a win and the mood music coming out of the Antrim camp suggests that everything is going well for Andy McEntee and his charges and they can get the win that could set them up for a good season.

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