Two players representing the old and the new who have recently re-invented themselves within the Antrim hurling side will shoulder pivotal roles for tonight’s All Ireland Championship Qualifier against Carlow at Casement Park.
While 30-year-old Karl McKeegan is enjoying a new lease of life in the unusual position of corner forward Shane McNaughton, eight years his junior, is rapidly acquiring the status of a polished midfielder having taken his county baptism in the attack.
McKeegan’s stunning contribution of 2-4 cemented Antrim’s handsome victory over Down in last weekend’s Ulster final – a match in which McNaughton’s ball-winning skills and distribution artistry permitted the Saffrons forward division to function smoothly.
Tonight McKeegan, who has played at centre-half-back and wing-back in the past, will again go in search of scores as Antrim bid to progress further down the All Ireland route following their exit from the Leinster Championship at the hands of Offaly who subsequently ran fancied Galway very close in the semi-final.
McKeegan’s competitive spirit and willingness to beaver for possession is currently bringing a fresh dimension to the Antrim attack and the fact that he is able to complement this with quality finishing pleases manager Dinny Cahill.
“Karl is a great example of a player who puts the needs of the team first. I have never known him to play a below-par game for Antrim and now that he is in scoring form this could prove a bonus for us against Carlow who looked impressive in defeating Laois last weekend,” says Cahill.
McKeegan and his colleagues up front will once again depend on the energetic McNaughton and his midfield partner Karl Stewart to provide their ammunition and Cahill is in no doubt that McNaughton, son of the legendary ‘Sambo’, can blossom into one of the top players in the country.
“He is in great form at the moement and it’s very encouraging to see young players like him, P J O’Connell, Cormac Donnelly and our captain Paul Shiels willingly accepting responsibility. This team is beginning to mature nicely and a win tonight would undoubtedly bring them on further,” points out Cahill.
While Carlow’s spirits have been lifted considerably following that win over Laois, manager Kevin Ryan predicts that Antrim will be “a real tough test” for them.
“Going up to Casement Park is never easy. Antrim will have the bit between their teeth after their Ulster final win,” says Ryan whose side lost to the Saffrons in the National League.
Paul Kehoe, who scored 0-11 against Laois last week, Denis Murphy and Craig Doyle are three key players who could help form a barrier to Antrim’s hopes of making it into the next phase of the all Ireland series.