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Naomh Éanna find form ahead of SFC opener

Eoin Nagle, pictured in action against Kilcummin of Kerry in February’s All-Ireland IFC final at Croke Park, is expected to return to the Naomh Éanna team for Saturday’s Antrim Senior Football Championship preliminary round clash against Aghagallon at Glenavy Eoin Nagle, pictured in action against Kilcummin of Kerry in February’s All-Ireland IFC final at Croke Park, is expected to return to the Naomh Éanna team for Saturday’s Antrim Senior Football Championship preliminary round clash against Aghagallon at Glenavy
By Paddy Tierney

Northern Switchgear Antrim Senior Football Championship preliminary round
Naomh Éanna v St Mary’s, Aghagallon (Saturday, 7pm, Glenavy)

AFTER Monday night’s bout of shadowboxing, the stakes are raised for the Championship showdown between Naomh Éanna and Aghagallon at Glenavy on Saturday evening.

The current Intermediate champions face off against the 2016 winners having secured their Division One status at Páirc na nGael on Monday night.

The game meant little to the hosts with St Mary’s finishing top of the Division 1B standings, but Naomh Éanna needed a win to ensure they avoided the play-off. A goal from Odhran Eastwood helped the Glengormley side claim a 1-12 to 0-8 in tough conditions.

The sense of relief among the Naomh Éanna squad was palpable. There was a nervousness in their play towards the end of Monday night’s game.

Manager, Frank Fitzsimons had previously stated his belief that retaining their Division One status would be on a par with winning the Intermediate crown last year.

Now that their first goal of the season has been achieved, they can look ahead to the Championship campaign with a renewed confidence having won their last three league games in succession.

“For a club like Naomh Éanna, they need to playing Division One football,” said Fitzsimons.

“The talent we’ve been missing throughout the year has been unreal.

“Fair play to the lads, they stuck to it. They needed a break, you have to understand that. Hopefully, they are well-rested and we’ll get a bit of a run together.

“It will be tough on Saturday night, but everybody looks forward to the Championship. Both teams are fairly young with a few experienced players. It has the makings of a good match.

“I’d say it is a 50/50 game – it all comes down to who makes the least mistakes on Saturday night.”

At different stages of their 2019 league campaign, Naomh Éanna have been without some of the stars of their brilliant 2018 season – Peter and Kristian Healy, Odhran Eastwood, Eoin Nagle, Joe Maskey and Ethan Gibson.

For Monday night’s final league game against St Mary’s, all bar Kristian Healy and Eoin Nagle had returned to the fold.

Healy, who has an ongoing groin injury, could play some part in Saturday’s game while Nagle recently returned from an extended trip to Vancouver and is expected to feature.

“Kristian (Healy) is starting to come back and it was good to see him togged out on Monday night,” said Fitzsimons.

“We’d be hopeful that he would be fit to play some part on Saturday, but we won’t rush him. It is one of those injuries, the closer he gets to full fitness, it goes on him again. It is very frustrating for him.”

One player who won’t play against Aghagallon is midfielder Niall McKeown, who suffered another injury setback when dislocating his elbow in the recent win over Ahoghill.

That means Maskey and Gibson are likely to line out at midfield on Saturday night, although the former spent some time tracking Ruairi McCann on Monday.

With McCann likely to play at full-forward at some stage, Maskey could be deployed to give extra cover to the full-back line, although Fitzsimons insists it wasn’t a deliberate tactic during Monday night’s game.

“It was just the way it worked out on Monday night,” he added.

“Ruairi McCann played at midfield in the first league match against us.

“Our full-back line is good enough. Mick McNamee at full-back is as good as there is. McCann has himself in good nick and he is a quality player. Whoever is marking him would need to be on their game.”

Interestingly, it was Fitzsimons who brought McCann and his Aghagallon colleagues Eunan Walsh, Pat Branagan and Oisin Lenehan into the Antrim panel following their 2016 Intermediate victory.

Yet, the same is true of the opposition management and, with two of their game’s televised live last season, Kevin Murray will have his homework done on Naomh Éanna.

Murray is sweating on the fitness of defender Darryl McAlernon who dislocated a finger during Monday night’s league meeting between the sides.

Aghagallon suffered a first round exit at the hands of Murray’s native Lámh Dhearg last season, but will be eyeing a run in this year’s Championship given the nature of the draw.

The winners of Saturday’s game will make a quick return to action next weekend when they take on a St Teresa’s side who have just been relegated to Division Two.

St Gall’s then await the winners in the quarter-final. Fitzsimons knows few would give either team or indeed St Teresa’s much of a chance against the likes of St Gall’s, but he has urged his side to play with abandon and show their best form in the Senor grade.

“They have to go out and prove their doubters wrong now,” said Fitzsimons.

“I know the talent they have. Maybe it is a bit early to ask too much of them at senior level – I don’t know. If they keep improving and adding to their talents the way they have been, they’ve the potential to go places.

“It is a big ask in their first year at senior. You are hoping to get over the first round and see how it goes.

“We didn’t think beyond the league game against Aghagallon, never mind anything else. We are now going in off the back of three league wins in-a-row when the pressure was on. That’s great preparation for the Championship – you couldn’t ask for better.”

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