All eyes to Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening
By Brendan McTaggart
All eyes turn to the big ball on Saturday evening with Antrim kicking off their Ulster Championship at home to All-Ireland finalists, Tyrone. At home to Tyrone. By home, we know that means another away match with the Athletic Grounds in Armagh the designated destination for the Saffron Army.
It’s days like this where you miss Casement Park the most.
Anyhow, an Ulster Championship quarter-final against the Red Hands is sure to whet the appetite and yes, Antrim are facing what plenty are calling Mission Impossible or as previously reported, David versus Goliath. A sling shot is all David needed to conquer Goliath, who will have the ammunition on Saturday evening?
A dreamers dream.
Having played through a less than convincing league, the Saffrons have done little to encourage anyone to have an outside bet on them causing a major upset but as Patrick Gallagher told us, it could have been very different during the National League had lady luck been wearing Saffron: “We lost three games by a point. That was tough to take.
“The last two performances gives us hope (Wicklow and Limerick). We were far better in comparison to the Waterford and Wexford games. Derry was a good performance too, we weren’t given much chance and everyone thought we’d go out and get stuffed but we were a block away from getting a draw.”
Antrim went into that Derry match as underdogs and but for a heroic block from Michael McEvoy, denying Owen McKeown in the dying seconds, it could have set up a totally different campaign: “The big one was the Derry match. Padraig Cassidy gets that score right at the death with a fisted point.
“You win that, you’re buzzing and it could have gathered momentum.
“We went to Wexford and it was probably our worse performance. Leitrim was another serious performance but we didn’t get the rub of the green on the day.
“The Waterford match is the one that haunts us. We let ourselves down in that one and we just didn’t play well. That was a game we should have been winning but two good home wins and the result in Limerick gives us confidence looking ahead.”
Saturday will be a day short of nine weeks since Antrim’s last competitive match, that four point win over Limerick in the Treaty County. Tyrone have a match already behind them, a tougher than expected encounter with their neighbours Derry in the preliminary round and you have to feel that Tyrone will have any cobwebs blown off them already. Glenavy man Gallagher said they’ve worked with the club fixtures for match fitness while keeping momentum going in camp: “We played Down in a challenge match and a couple of inhouse games. For fitness those are class.
“We come in on Thursday’s after club matches and do a bit and Saturday’s and Sunday’s but its not easy getting it together when you’re playing two matches a week as well. It’s working pretty well though.”
Last years championship left many Saffron fans frustrated. A Saturday evening in The Marshes of Newry when it just didn’t happen for Lenny Herbison’s men but the Antrim defender told us they have learned from last years encounter: “We let ourselves down and we all know that. We played with fear. We were well set up but we just didn’t do it on the day. We didn’t execute the plans we had in place but the fear was there. There was almost a fear of working hard. You’re coming up against boys and you don’t want to leave yourself puffed for late in the game coming up against flyers. It’s not because you’re not fit enough, it’s a conscious choice that brought the fear. The ball was going into Ryan (Murray) and Paddy (McBride) and we weren’t getting close enough to them for support. I know I didn’t make the runs that day, it wasn’t because I was lazy, it’s because I was too cautious but we’ve talked a lot about that in the build up.
“You can’t come up against Tyrone and sit off them. They’ll eventually work a hole and unless you go up and put them under pressure then you wont make a game of it. You cant defend from the word go, you have to attack.
“Preparation wise, we were well prepared, we had a plan and just didn’t follow it though. We have our plans for this year and it’s up to the players to execute those on the day.
“This year we’ve been good at pin pointing five or six players to counteract their threats and imposing ourselves while adapting to the opposition. Saturday will be a major test.
“Look it’s going to be tough. They’re All-Ireland finalists but these are the matches you want to be involved in. I want to come up against a Peter Harte or a Mattie Donnelly and see how I do, you want to test yourself against the best.”
Ulster championship always brings a buzz around the county. But you get the feeling the buzz isn’t quite there with a home game in Armagh ahead. The Casement Park saga lingers on and while it frustrates Gallagher, he’s looking forward to putting on the Saffron shirt once more: “It’s a big day, when you’re a kid it’s what you dream off. Playing on these big occasions.
“I’m getting married later in the summer and we were looking through an old photo album at home. There was one of me and my brother in our full Antrim kits from 2000 before going to Casement as nine or ten year olds. Going to the ground and absolutely buzzing. If you had told me 20 years ago I’d be playing for Antrim, I’d have bitten your arm off.
“We’ve lost a few boys from last year but the boys who are here want to be here, representing their clubs and play for the shirt. The pride we have in the shirt is massive. We let ourselves down against Waterford but the London and Wicklow games we showed what we were capable of. It was vital to get those wins.”