Neighbourhood watch for paddy
FOUR years ago Paddy Cunningham skippered Antrim when they lost to Tyrone in the Ulster senior football championship final.
But in the interim the Saffrons have slipped back into relative anonymity, their brush with the spotlight proving of only limited duration.
Tomorrow, though, Cunningham, a 27-year-old west Belfast schoolteacher, believes that Antrim can set the template for those Ulster counties currently battling to retain their status in the Allianz Football League.
Frank Dawson's team will confront improving Meath at Casement Park with Cunningham restored to the right-full-forward position from where he hopes to help light a torch for Ulster football in general.
"Obviously this is a huge game for us because a win would make us safe in Division Three," points out Cunningham. "Maybe that might not be regarded as the biggest target in football but it is a very important goal for us.
"I honestly believe that if we can win this game which was postponed from last week we might just provide a lift for teams like Down, Armagh and others who will be fighting for their lives next weekend."
Last year during the closing phase of Liam Bradley's tenure as manager Cunningham withdrew from the Antrim side and has spent the winter months recovering from an injury which had been troubling him for some time.
When the invitation from new boss Dawson was extended to re-join the panel, Cunningham had no hesitation.
But he admits that trying to restore the spark of excitement and colour that accompanied Antrim's unexpected surge into the provincial decider four years ago is a difficult task.
"I can say hand on heart that there is great commitment among the lads but we have to recognise that many other county teams have moved forward in terms of their preparation and conditioning as well as their motivation," stresses Cunningham. "While we have good players in our team, we lack consistency in our results and that's what we have to aim for.
"I believe that if we can get past Meath tomorrow this would give us a lift going into the championship and would also fire us up for our last league game against Monaghan next Sunday."
While the Antrim squad has undergone change, a hard core of players who played in the '09 Ulster final still remain among them Tony Scullion, Tomas McCann, Justin Crozier, Andrew McClean, Kevin Niblock and Brendan Herron.
"It's good to have boys like these in the team because they know the ropes. I thought we gave a reasonably good account of ourselves in that final against Tyrone and then six days later we had to go out and face Kerry in the qualifiers," recalls Cunningham.
"That was a very tall order for us but again we showed a lot of composure especially in the first-half and it was probably their experience that told in the end.
"But it was great to be involved in those games and to see thousands of fervent Antrim supporters getting right behind us."
The crowd will be of much more modest proportions tomorrow but Cunningham suggests that a winning performance could help win over the doubters in advance of the championship.
"It's very clear that fans will only support a winning team and you can't blame them for that, especially in a recession when money is not plentiful," says Cunningham.
"We want to give Antrim folk something to shout about and if we could click tomorrow, then maybe we will set the pattern for next Sunday and other Ulster counties faced with relegation worries will maybe take a lead from us."
The return of the Johnston brothers Ricky and Martin to the squad – they have been absent for family reasons lately –provides manager Dawson with additional options on the bench while it is understood that Michael McCann might be back in the swing of things shortly as well.