ANTRIM will bid to round off a successful National League campaign by claiming the Division Four title at the expense of Louth at Croke Park on Saturday afternoon.
Both counties sealed promotion after six rounds, rendering their clash at Corrigan Park earlier this month rather meaningless.
This weekend, however, the stakes will be higher.
Silverware, in whatever form, will be welcomed by both counties as they look forward to their respective Championship campaigns.
Antrim, twice promoted without winning the league crown in 2009 (Division Four) and 2010 (Division Three), last lifted a cup back in 2008 when they won the much-maligned Tommy Murphy Cup.
For Louth, their drought goes back to 2009 when they won the O’Byrne Cup in Leinster.
Of course, the Wee County went agonisingly close to winning the Leinster Championship a year later when they were cruelly denied by Joe Sheridan’s infamous late goal.
That experience of Croke Park is sure to stand Louth in good stead and Antrim joint-manager Frank Fitzsimons is expecting a physical encounter on Saturday.
“Louth are a very physical team and always have been,” said Fitzsimons.
“They brought a few boys off the bench the last day and a lot of those boys would be their starters.
“It was just a bit of shadow boxing really for both teams the last day.
“Both teams knew they were in the final.”
While promotion may have been the main aim of the spring, the Division Four final also provides a useful competitive game between round seven and the Championship.
Antrim are lucky in that regard as their clash with Fermanagh is the Preliminary Round game on Sunday, May 15. Other Ulster counties, who failed to reach the league semi-finals or finals, have between six and nine weeks to wait for their Championship opener.
Fitzsimons feels that an outing at headquarters is a fitting reward for the Saffrons and is happy to get another game before taking on the Ernemen next month.
“It is different when you have a final to play in.
“We go down the road to play Fermanagh in the Championship in a couple of weeks and the boys have some club football to play before that,” added Fitzsimons.
“It is just trying to get the right balance between training and club football and everything else and making sure the guys aren’t doing too much either.
“Some people will tell you two weeks isn’t enough and six weeks is too long – it is about managing the time. At the end of the day, the lads just want to play football.
“Playing in a final in Croke Park is something to look forward to and the boys are busting to get at it.
“They have worked very hard and they are still working hard.
“People will say it is only the Division Four final but that is the level we are playing at and all we can do is get to the final and that’s what we have done. The final is there to be won.
“We will prepare our best and, hopefully, give our best on the night and see if it is good enough.”
Antrim and Louth will be the first two teams to grace Croker over the weekend with Kildare and Clare (Division Three final) forming the second part of Saturday’s double-header.
Tyrone and Cavan meet in the Division Two final on Sunday before last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Dublin and Kerry, clash in the Division One decider.
The Dubs caught the eye last time out with a stunning 10-point win over Donegal in their Division One semi-final with Stephen Cluxton, again, starring for Jim Gavin’s men.
Hailing Cluxton as ‘one of the best in the business’, Fitzsimons believes the goalkeeper now plays a pivotal role within the team and praised Chris Kerr’s contribution to the Antrim cause this season.
“Chris has been working with Sean McGreevy over the last couple of years and it shows. He has been improving every week,” said Fitzsimons.
“Cluxton is the best in the business and that is the kind of player that Chris would strive to be as good as.
“Cluxton is unreal. He has done as much to evolve Gaelic Football as any of these rule changes.
“He has brought it to another level.
“Chris is a top-class ’keeper and we have Ronan Hanna there as a great back-up.
“Only one goal was scored against him in the league.”
Kerr’s kick-out strategy could prove vital once again in Croke Park while midfielder Niall McKeever has been in fine form for Antrim this season.
With TG4 showing all four league finals, Fermanagh will get a close look at Antrim ahead of their Championship meeting at Brewster Park next month.
However, Fitzsimons stressed that the team which starts on Sunday may not be the team that lines out against Pete McGrath’s side on May 15 and feels that the impact of the substitutes will dictate the outcome of Saturday’s Division Four decider.
“It is about using the panel. The team that starts won’t be the one that finishes.
“It is about how you use those players,” said the Lámh Dhearg clubman.
“I think in Croke Park, in the wide spaces, more often than not, you see good, open football.
“It won’t be the 15 who start who win you the game, it is the team that finishes.
“The panel have been pushing each other all year and that’s where the bite is coming from and they will be pushing hard to start against Fermanagh too.
“I am sure the Fermanagh management will go down or watch it on television.
“That’s another challenge on down the road – we have to get this one out of the road first.
“It would be massive win for us. Some of the guys have gained promotion before but they have never won the title at the end of it.
“It would be a confidence booster. At the end of the day, you are looking for a good performance.
“No mater what, we will take the positives from the league.”
Defender Justin Crozier could make a return to action against the Wee County on Saturday.
The Cargin clubman has missed the last five league games with a hamstring injury but has featured for the county champions in recent weeks while John Carron should recover after picking up a knock in the draw with Louth.
In that tie, Antrim needed a last-gasp free from Tomás McCann to maintain their unbeaten run.
The round seven game, however, will have no bearing on Saturday’s final and Antrim must be braced for an altogether different challenge from Louth.
The Leinster men have much more experience of playing in Croke Park but Antrim have been the standout team in Division Four all season.
The Saffrons boasted the best defensive record across all four divisions and their superior strength-in-depth can see them edge another close encounter.