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Johnston eyes triple with Antrim to atone for missing out on Sigerson glory

Antrim v Down, Christy Ring Cup: Cushendall, Today, 2.00 pm

By John Campbell

Conor Johnston has more reason that most Antrim players to see the Christy Ring Cup captured by the county.

As he goes into today's important clash in the competition with Down at Cushendall, Johnston can reflect on his team's hard-earned promotion to Division 1B of the Allianz League and a 16th successive Ulster title which have been achieved recently, thus rendering the Ring trophy a potential hat-trick target of successes.

But it's the one that got away which remains a slight source of regret to the talented Johnston.

His commitment to Antrim's cause in the early part of the year when they were involved in the Walsh Cup meant that he had to forgo a place in the St Mary's University College squad which wrote a special chapter in the annals of GAA history by winning the coveted Sigerson Cup for only their second time.

As Johnston encouraged his student colleagues as they soared to a new peak, he reflected on what might have been, but not to the extent that he would have done things differently in hindsight.

"It was terrific to see St Mary's lift the Sigerson Cup, I know from first-hand knowledge how hard the lads worked to go all the way," says Johnston, "I was absolutely delighted for them but for my own part I must keep a strong focus with Antrim. We know that we face a tricky assignment against Down today but if we can come out on top we would be taking a step nearer the Christy Ring Cup."

Johnston's scoring exploits have helped to cement Antrim's progress while his brother Ciaran has helped to keep opposition forward divisions in check at the other end of the pitch.

Even a hamstring injury and other niggles have not been allowed to disrupt his impact within the side and having beaten Carlow for a second time within a few weeks last Saturday, Antrim go into today's match in good heart.

They face a Down side that overcame Roscommon last week-end after a turbulent build-up to the game and now manager Marty Mallon hopes for an even greater input from his players today.

Paul Sheehan, Gareth 'Magic' Johnston, Conor Woods and Daniel Toner can help underpin Down's challenge in a match that can potentially show Ulster hurling in a more positive light.

Sheehan scored 0-15 for Down in last week-end's win over Roscommon and his hot form means that he can expect to be well policed by the Saffrons' defence today.

And it was the ability of 'Magic'Johnston to help Down sustain their momentum in the last quarter of that game after coming on as a substitute that underlined his value to the side while Conor Woods remains a resolute presence at the core of the defence.

Antrim will be without the vastly-experienced Neil McManus who gets married today and his deft scoring touch will undoubtedly be missed given that he hit 1-11 in the important win over Carlow last week-end.

But Antrim are certainly not short on fire-power with Johnston supported by players of the calibre of Ciaran Clarke and Niall McKenna while skipper Simon McCrory is at the heart of a resilient defence which also boasts the hugely impressive John Dillon and Paddy Burke.

The force would seem to be with Antrim yet Down always seem to lift their game when they are confronted by saffron shirts and today they will be keen to prove themselves.

Belfast Telegraph

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