Antrim's bid for glory gets a timely boost
Stephen McAfee has received the best possible fillip ahead of Antrim's All-Ireland U21 hurling final against Clare on Saturday at Semple Stadium, Thurles.
The cultured sharpshooter has just taken delivery of the Ulster GAA Writers Association monthly merit award following a spectacular display in the semi-final win over Wexford, 2-15 to 1-16, when he scored 1-4 from play.
It was a stunning show that was complemented by 1-4 from Ciaran Clarke and which laid the basis for Antrim's shock victory in a match which they entered as 80/1 outsiders.
Precociously talented McQuillans Ballycastle clubman McAfee (20), a UUJ marketing student, is now hoping to unleash his scoring talents against a Clare side that is expected to contain upwards of eight players who were in action against Cork in last Sunday's drawn All-Ireland senior final.
Clare are red-hot favourites to lift the U21 crown having been a major force at this level in recent years but McAfee believes that Antrim have taken considerable heart from their win over Wexford and suggests that they can find an even higher gear against their Munster opponents.
"Obviously we are the real underdogs in this one but then we were in the same position against Wexford," points out McAfee.
"Our manager Kevin Ryan has great belief in us and he is very keen for us to show our true worth when the chips are down.
"Our preparations have been going well and that is a great source of encouragement."
It is no secret that the Saffrons' build-up to their mission against Wexford was far from ideal because of injuries and the staging of a round of club football fixtures which clashed with the hurling tie.
But right now hurling fever has gripped Antrim and McAfee is hoping that the team can provide their fans with an unexpected bonus.
This is the first time since the competition was launched 46 years ago that an Ulster side will be in the final and McAfee is anxious to make it a winning debut for the province.
"This is a massive challenge for us," he admits.
"When you look at the way that Clare's younger players stood up to the mark against Cork on Sunday you know exactly what we are up against."
Ulster GAA Writers Association chairman John Martin is urging all Ulster followers to get behind the side on Saturday.
"In recognising Stephen McAfee with our award we are in essence providing a spur to the team as a whole to rise to the occasion," states Martin.
In winning his award, McAfee saw off a strong challenge from Tyrone ace Sean Cavanagh, Monaghan ladies player Catriona McConnell and Red Hands minor player Conor McKenna.
McAfee's prize consists of a specially commissioned inscribed Belleek vase, sports gear from O'Neill's International Sports, a voucher, special cuff links from Omeath jeweller Gareth Mallon and two complimentary tickets with overnight accommodation included to the writers' annual awards banquet in Bundoran on November 15.