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Antrim must up the ante in bid for McKenna Cup joy as Stephen O'Neill continues to assess side


Stephen O'Neill

Stephen O'Neill

©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Stephen O'Neill

It’s not often that the glint of silverware becomes perceptible to the Antrim football team in the month of January.

But, then again, on the basis that success can potentially breed more success, the side’s recent surge into Division Three of the Allianz League has triggered a level of optimism that would suggest a place in the Dr McKenna Cup semi-finals is not beyond their compass.

Tuesday night’s win over Down has lent added significance to tomorrow’s clash with Donegal at Portglenone (1.30) and provides another opportunity for the management team of Enda McGinley and Stephen O’Neill to further assess the pool of talent they have at their disposal.

With Jamie Gribbin, Kevin Small, Pat Shivers and Ronan Boyle among the young guns to have caught the eye against James McCartan’s team, the Saffrons’ management duo are hopeful that others will now step into the spotlight in the countdown to the Allianz League.

“The new lads and the older players are working well together and they have been training diligently over the last number of weeks,” states O’Neill.

“It’s nice to note the effort players are showing on the training pitch is starting to pay dividends. We’ve a lot of work still to do and we’ve Donegal coming to us next. We will look to up the ante and challenge the lads to turn in another good performance.”

It is a measure of the depth of talent within the Antrim squad that seasoned campaigners such as James McAuley, Ryan Murray, Declan McAleese and Conor Murray were held in reserve before being introduced from the bench against Down to help close out the contest.

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O’Neill is in no doubt about the value of games in January even though the current McKenna Cup competition is very much an afterthought on the part of the Central Competitions Control Committee.

“To get to play against some of the top teams in Ulster in the McKenna Cup is a massive challenge for Antrim and it’s something we relish,” adds O'Neill. “We see this as ideal preparation for the league and that’s why the lads are giving it everything.”

If anything, Donegal boss Declan Bonner might just feel the heat more than his Antrim counterparts this term given that his side have not been hitting the high spots over the course of the past two seasons.

He may have masterminded Ulster title successes in his first two years in charge but the provincial crown went to Cavan in 2020 with Tyrone landing the honour last year.

And although his team got the better of Down last weekend, Bonner is confronted by problems as he faces into the 2022 season.

Jamie Brennan and Hugh McFadden have been sidelined with long-term injuries, while Michael Murphy and Hugh McFadden are continuing their rehabilitation following injuries sustained in last year’s Ulster Championship.

To compound Bonner’s problems, Eoin McHugh is taking a break from inter-county football this year, while Odhran MacNiallais has again distanced himself from the squad.

While Bonner is blooding fresh talent this month, he is nonetheless anxious to see his more experienced campaigners return to action.

Donegal will have four league games at home and Bonner believes this could prove crucial in helping his side retain their place in Division One.

“Obviously all teams want to get into their stride early and we are certainly no exception," he says.

“This match against Antrim will be a stiff test especially given the manner in which they gained promotion last year and got the better of Down on Tuesday night. We have to be on our toes.”

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