Near miss in league gives Antrim hope, insists Chris Kerr
Antrim goalkeeper Chris Kerr had to pick the ball out of his net only once in seven games during his team's campaign in Division Four of the Allianz Football League.
Yet a defensive record that was among the best in all four divisions of the competition was not sufficient to gain the Saffrons a coveted place in Division Three.
Nonetheless, the team's robust defiance - which was only breached by Carlow in their 1-12 to 0-12 victory, the only blemish on Antrim's record - now offers considerable encouragement for the forthcoming Ulster Championship itinerary, according to Kerr.
His team are set to come up against a familiar face in their opening game in the flagship competition, too.
They travel to Pairc Esler, Newry to confront Down on May 26 and waiting for them in the opposition corner will be former Saffrons joint-manager Gearoid Adams, who threw in his lot with Down boss Eamonn Burns towards the end of last year.
The experienced Kerr sees Antrim's visit to Mourne County territory as an opportunity to prove that their failure to gain promotion was more of a temporary aberration than anything else.
"We drew with Wicklow in a match in which we shot about 15 wides but that loss to Carlow was crucial. We were at home, too, which made it more disappointing but now our whole focus is on the Championship and this upcoming game against Down," stated Kerr.
"They will be very disappointed because they have been relegated to Division Three so in a sense they are really only a few places better than us in the league.
"I honestly think that we showed good consistency in the league although we slipped up on the final furlong. If we could manage to beat Down, we would be making a big statement."
Kerr's longevity between the posts stems from his exploits with St Gall's, with whom he won an All-Ireland Club Championship medal 10 years ago.
Current Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson was in charge of St Gall's then and Kerr believes that he can still take the Saffrons forward despite the disappointment of failing to secure promotion last month.
"I don't think we have anything to fear going to Down and Lenny will certainly have us fired up," revealed Kerr.
"Obviously Gearoid Adams knows all there is to know about us but then Lenny will have his homework done on Down, you can be sure of that."
Harbinson has pieced together an Antrim side that includes a raft of talented individual players such as Peter Healy, Paddy McAleer, James Laverty, Patrick Gallagher, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Ryan Murray, CJ McGourty, Conor Murray and of course the dependable Kerr.
In the past Antrim may have been burdened by an inferiority complex when it came to the Ulster Championship but Kerr does not see that as a problem this year.
"Down have not had too many Ulster Championship matches on their own ground over recent years and our confidence was good for the most part in the league so we feel we have nothing to fear. We are working hard in training and Lenny will have us well motivated," insisted Kerr.
Down boss Burns, meanwhile, is taking stock following his team's relegation but can take comfort from the fact that Colm Flanagan and Anthony Doherty proved two exciting discoveries.
Both came into the side at the start of the league and have impressed, with Flanagan showing himself to be an outstanding man-marker and Doherty not only underlining that he can link defence and attack but displaying marked ability as a free-taker.
Up front, Shay Millar and Aaron Morgan continue to impress since winning their places while Sean Dornan firmly cemented his value to the team by scoring a third-minute goal against Tipperary last weekend to help earn his side a rare league win.
Kerr added: "Down have shown they have unearthed some fresh talent but we must look to our strengths and try and get our strategy right on the day."