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Murray: we can cause another big shock in Ulster

 

By John Campbell

It would have been a brave - or very wealthy - person who might have wagered heavily on a triple coup in the Ulster Senior Football Championship to date.

If Donegal's handsome win over Cavan caused raised eyebrows then Fermanagh's stunning triumph against Armagh sent the chattering classes into overdrive before Monaghan's bushwhacking of Tyrone's bid to make it a hat-trick of provincial crowns brought a whole new dynamic to the competition.

'Boring', 'predictable' and 'dull' were just some of the adjectives that were being applied to the Ulster series even before a ball was kicked.

Yet now even those with nothing more than a passing interest in Gaelic football are already tuned in to what could prove a fascinating journey to the final on June 24.

And nowhere is the 'shock factor' being embraced more enthusiastically than in Antrim.

Tomorrow the Saffrons will confront Down in a quarter-final with the hope of rekindling the profile in which they basked nine years ago when they reached the final, only to fall to Tyrone.

Conor Murray is among those who has endured Championship heartbreak with Antrim in recent years but feels that a more level playing field is suddenly confronting those sides still in the hunt for the Anglo-Celt Cup.

Yet his feet remain firmly on the ground even though a fresh wave of optimism engulfs his county following their frustrating failure to gain promotion to Division Three in the league.

"We're meeting a Down side that probably surprised people by reaching last year's Ulster final, and you would have to say that they weren't that far away from the All-Ireland quarter-finals," points out Murray, whose brother Ryan will also be in the Antrim attack.

"When you look at it, you have to take into consideration our recent record in the Ulster Championship, and you can see then why Down probably deserve the favourites tag for this game."

Yet manager Lenny Harbinson's upbeat rhetoric, allied to his squad's determination to come good in the Championship, had already served to galvanise their build-up before recent results provided further conviction that Antrim can make their own contribution to the list of upsets.

"I feel that, when we click, there aren't many teams who are able to stop us, but it's keeping it going for the 70-plus minutes that is the big challenge," admits Murray.

"It's more a belief thing with us, to be honest. When it comes to physical fitness or skills level, we're on a par with the majority of counties, but when it comes to - as Lenny Harbinson himself puts it - that wee man in your head, we can sometimes struggle to put teams away."

Murray's influence within the Antrim attack is complemented by the finishing skills of his brother Ryan, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Patrick McBride, and he recognises that, when it comes to putting scores on the board, Antrim must step up to the mark at Páirc Esler.

"I suppose if we were playing Donegal in Ballybofey or Tyrone in Healy Park, we'd be expecting a good performance but ultimately we'd be looking to see how far we would go in the qualifiers," concedes Murray. "But Down in Newry - now that's something else. I think the belief is in our squad this time.

"We will be carrying no baggage into this game. We're going down to Newry on Saturday and if we don't win, we'll be bitterly disappointed. That's the long and the short of it."

Murray, a teacher at Beechlawn Special School in Hillsborough, accepts that Antrim's failure to gain promotion could be viewed as a drawback to their Championship aspirations but contends that a lot of work has been undertaken in recent weeks.

He acknowledges that it will take an all-round team effort if the Saffrons are to make it to an Ulster semi-final against Donegal or Derry on June 10.

"It's a big ask, but we are up for it. Antrim are renowned for having good forwards but the corollary of that is we tend to concede rather too much, so we have to find the right balance," stresses Murray. "We know we have forwards who can hurt teams but we need to keep the back door closed as well."

Much will depend on how the Saffrons fare at midfield, with manager Harbinson currently devoting much thought to his engine-room pairing.

The hope is that Niall McKeever will be fully fit to take his place in the team, and his experience will certainly be required, given Donegal's 2012 All-Ireland winning skipper Michael Murphy currently wields a big influence at midfield, as well as supporting an attack which includes Patrick McBrearty and Jamie Brennan.

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