Can Antrim’s underdogs come out of the darkness?
Gaelic football fans across the province are gearing up for a David v Goliath clash this weekend as Tyrone and Antrim go head-to-head in the Ulster Championship Final.
Sunday’s game at Clones promises to have drama in spades as current All-Ireland champions Tyrone take the fight to their underdog rivals, who have not played in an Ulster final in almost 40 years.
The last time Antrim won the title in 1951 the Korean War was in full swing and Nat King Cole was at the top of the music charts.
Despite the massive challenge ahead, however, the Antrim entourage are hopeful that their team might just pull off an historic upset.
“It’s been a long gap, probably far too long,” said John McSparran, chairman of Antrim County Board.
“We’re delighted at the astronomical progress that’s been made this year, it augurs well for the future for football in Antrim.”
Tyrone will be a daunting prospect for a Saffrons side that last contested an Ulster final in 1970, when they lost to Derry.
“There’s no doubt Tyrone will be raging hot favourites for this game, Antrim players have nothing to lose in that regard,” said Mr McSparran.
“(Antrim’s) presence in the Ulster final is merited in terms of the results that they have achieved.
“Credit has to go to the management team, who have galvanised the players to produce the results that they have achieved this year.
“Getting promotion from Division Four of the National League was certainly a major factor in giving the lads a bit of confidence.”
And Mr McSparran said the mood among fans was one of “absolute euphoria”.
“They’re absolutely delighted at being there, expectations are hopeful at this stage,” he said.
With a young team and a young captain in Paddy Cunningham, Antrim can expect a stiff challenge in spite of their path to the final, which saw them defeat Donegal and Cavan.
And Tyrone are firm favourites with bookmakers Paddy Power, who are offering odds of 1/14 for them to win, compared with 8/1 for Antrim.
Tyrone County Board member Damian Harvey said the team would not be taking anything for granted this weekend.
“It’s a unique occasion for Tyrone to be playing Antrim in an Ulster final,” he said.
“They’re coming into the match as underdogs but we’ve been very impressed with their last two games and we’ll be expecting them to put it up to us on Sunday.
“They have a very good management team and will be very well prepared. Antrim are going into the game with nothing to lose and are capable of causing enough problems on Sunday to make it very difficult for us.
“I think the boys will be very well-prepared and ready for it. It’s just another hurdle, they’re preparing for Antrim the same way they prepared for Armagh and Derry beforehand. They’re very focused on what’s going to be required to overcome Antrim.”
Danny Murphy, provincial director of Ulster GAA, said the final would be an “intriguing” match.
“I would expect a fairly close contest,” he said.
“While you’d have to favour the All-Ireland champions in these events, if Antrim play to the level that they have to date then they can cause a considerable upset.”
Tyrone’s prowess on the pitch, having won the All-Ireland three times in the last six years, will also ensure a ‘David and Goliath’ fixture on Sunday.
“The whole Antrim team will be new to this level of competition,” said Mr Murphy.
“Tyrone on the other hand have been there, they’ll not be going in with any lack of experience.
“This is the occasion that everyone builds towards from the start of the campaign. When it comes to this stage of the year people like to have the provincial championship under their belt before they go forward into the All-Ireland series.
“It’s a big contest and while both teams will hopefully give it their best, it will be a huge test for Antrim.”
Backroom boy Ray recalls his landmark game 39 years ago
Success for Antrim on Sunday would have a special significance for Ray McIlroy, who recalls playing in the Saffrons’ last Ulster Championship Final against Derry in 1970.
Reminiscing back 39 years to the game, Ray said: “Derry beat us by four points that day, but hopefully it will be a success story for Antrim on Sunday.
“We were a young team, with seven of us from the under-21 team who won the All- Ireland in 1969.
“Back then game play was different. The ball was passed to the forwards and they were expected to get the goals.
“Now, it’s a 15-man game. Positions count for little and potentially everyone is capable of scoring.”
Comparing the hype surrounding the current final with that of 1970, Ray said: “It was a lot lower key then. There were no cameras and Press about.
“At training on Monday night at least three reporters and two TV stations turned up.
“The media interest is different. Liam Bradley will have to get the boys back down to earth before Sunday.”
As one of Antrim’s backroom men, Ray has secured himself the best seat in Clones for his team’s landmark game against Tyrone.
“I am going to be right at the corner of the pitch taking a video,” said Ray.
“Although TV crews will be there, we like to have our own footage, which team manager Liam Bradley uses to analyse the play.”
Despite Antrim being obvious underdogs against a strong Tyrone side who have won three All-Ireland finals, Ray is confident in Antrim’s ability to triumph on Sunday.
“The boys have trained hard and put the work in. They are a stronger 15 than we had in 1970,” he said.
“They are playing the current All-Ireland champions, effectively the best team in Ireland.
“More pressure is on Tyrone as the current title-holders. Our lads can just go out and enjoy themselves.
“However, hopefully they will get some breaks in the game.
“Sometimes referee decisions can go against you and we’re hoping Tyrone are not in their best form.”
Flags and banners are being put up in towns and villages right across Co Antrim in support of the team and over 10,000 tickets have been allocated for the big game.
“It’s very exciting, the atmosphere about the county is just great,” said Ray.
“It’s nice to see youngsters and older ones wearing their county top with pride.
“Support will also be there from our neighbouring GAA counties as well.”
Even if they lose the Ulster final, Liam Bradley’s boys will find themselves in the last round of the qualifiers — but that’s something they are particularly keen to avoid.
“Hopefully we will be celebrating. The drive up from Clones is better craic when you win.”