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Antrim on mission to give struggling county a welcome boost

By John Campbell

There is only pride at stake. On countless occasions this succinct sentence has been deployed to summarise the height of a team's aspirations as a key contest looms.

But rarely does it carry more resonance than when applied to Antrim's Allianz Hurling League Division One fight for life against promotion-seeking Kerry at Parnell Park, Dublin tomorrow.

If ever a county was in need of a pick-me-up right now, then that county is indeed Antrim.

Consider the backdrop against which Kevin Ryan's charges will engage with Division Two top cats Kerry to preserve their tenuous residency in Division 1B.

The Saffrons have lost six league matches on the trot including a basement relegation shoot-out with Laois, the county's footballers have failed to emerge from Division Four of the league for a second successive year, the unforeseen delay in the reconstruction of Casement Park means that both teams are deprived of their headquarters for the foreseeable future and the ambitious Centre of Excellence at Dunsilly remains unfinished as plans for Phase Two continue to take shape.

Throw in the fact that long-serving football ace Michael McCann, more often than not an inspirational figure, has just confirmed publicly what most of us knew - that his withdrawal from the squad, perhaps for good, was not work-related but rather through frustration with the county board although his substitution against Wicklow saw the exit sign illuminated.

No wonder hurling boss Ryan, a Waterford native, has been given plenty of food for thought in the countdown to tomorrow's showdown with a Kerry side that has been knocking at the door of Division One for some time now.

Ryan is fully aware, as indeed are his players, that for Antrim to surrender their slot in the top tier would not only be a blow for the county but for the sport within the province.

The rather convoluted system governing promotion in the Allianz League, which has been justifiably criticised by Kerry manager Eamonn Kelly, ensures that those teams that eventually do manage to take a step up fully deserve their fresh status and Ryan knows that tomorrow's tie is the ultimate last chance saloon outing.

"From the outside looking in, we would seem to have a lot more to lose than Kerry. We are almost on a hiding to nothing," concedes Ryan.

He is right on the nail there. Not only would defeat push Antrim over the precipice in terms of the league but it could serve to further dismantle morale for the demanding Leinster Championship in which they are still trying to catch the eye several years after their initial entry.

Skipper Neil McManus, seasoned defenders Aaron Graffin and Neal McAuley, playmaker Paul Shiels and sharpshooters Conor Carson and PJ O'Connell can be relied upon to set the tone for what Ryan hopes will be a Lazarus-like performance but Kerry are not without their own quota of ammunition.

Mikey Boyle, Keith Carmody and Colm Harty are accomplished forwards while Patrick Kelly, who qualifies for the Kingdom on the parentage ruling, was a member of the Clare side that won the All-Ireland crown in 2013.

Team boss Kelly, whose team overcame Westmeath in a gruelling encounter last Sunday to earn their crack at Antrim, accepts that if his team were to win tomorrow, it would be a "massive step up for us."

The corollary of this, of course, would be yet another slap in the face for Antrim, a county which is certainly enduring more than its share of hard times at the moment.

Belfast Telegraph

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