Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Ulster Championship: Antrim fans can make it a double celebration

Antrim manager Liam Bradley
Antrim manager Liam Bradley

The battle lines have been drawn in earnest for the start of the Championship season and it’s doubtful if the passion, intensity and tension that is palpable in Antrim right now can be matched anywhere.

Within the space of less than 24 hours next weekend, the Saffrons are scheduled to fulfil two season-defining matches that will kick-start four months of frenetic activity in two codes.

And with county football boss Liam Bradley having fired a “puke football” broadside at Donegal in advance of Sunday’s Ulster Championship meeting at Ballybofey and hurling supremo Dinny Cahill enthusiastically talking up his side’s prospects for Saturday night’s Leinster Championship showdown with great rivals Laois, it’s hardly surprising that county chairman Jim Murray stepped in last night to issue a rallying call to Saffrons fans.

“These are two massive matches for our county and while the logistics of actually attending the ties in places as far apart as Portlaoise and Ballybofey within a very limited time frame will certainly present a difficulty, I would appeal to all fans to dig deep into their wallets and purses and get behind the teams,” urges Murray.

“This is the time of year which all teams relish — there is nothing to beat the heat of championship action. We would just love to see the Antrim supporters come out in their thousands to help us to get the two wins on which we are so strongly focused.”

Bradley’s assertion that Donegal are “ultra-defensive and playing real puke football in a sense” has certainly not gone down well in the north-west county where manager Jim McGuinness has promised that his players “will do their talking on the park come Sunday.”

And if this does not light the fuse for what should be a stupendous clash, then nothing will.

Given that the pre-match tension has been racked up considerably, Bradley has even more reason to be hopeful that injury victims Tómas McCann, Tony Scullion, Kevin McGourty and Michael McCann will be fully fit to cope with the challenge posed by the Division Two National League champions.

Bradley may be entering the lion’s den but there is not a trace of fear in the Glenullin man’s psyche as he targets his team’s biggest game of the year to date.

“We are not going in there with our eyes shut — why should we fear them anyway? We beat them two years ago and we can do that again,” he raps defiantly.

And as if taking a leaf from the Bradley manual of self-belief, hurling boss Cahill is adamant that Antrim can get past Laois and book what would be a mouth-watering engagement with Wexford even though Eddie McCloskey (suspension) and Liam Watson (injured) will play no part in Saturday night’s tie at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise.

There is still a grave doubt over the fitness of full-back Cormac Donnelly who has not been in action in recent weeks having undergone surgery in Munich for a deep-seated groin injury.

But Cahill can point to the form of emerging players such as Sean Hawes, Michael Armstrong, Barry McFall, Simon McCrory and P J O’Connell among others as one of the chief reasons for Antrim optimism.

“We have a decent record against Laois and we are very keen to make an impact in the Leinster championship,” declares Cahill. “Dublin have set the template for teams like ourselves by beating Kilkenny in the league final and now it’s up to the like of us to pick up the gauntlet.”

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