Saffrons set for league opener against familiar foes

By David Mohan

THEY say familiarity breeds contempt and while Antrim and Sligo prepare to lock horns for the sixth time in just four seasons, for Mark Sweeney Saturday’s opposition are fairly new.

The St Brigid’s man makes his return to the panel after representing Queen’s University in the Dr McKenna Cup in what will be just his second season in county colours.

Therefore, the wing forward’s only previous experience of the Yeats County is last season’s 2-18 to 1-11 reverse at Casement Park in a game that all but confirmed Antrim’s demotion from Division 2.

While the manner of that defeat certainly hurt Antrim’s pride, the South Belfast student says he and the rest of the panel are determined to make amends for their poor showing on that occasion.

“We definitely are, especially after last year.

“It was a wild thumping they gave us but this time we have Paul McFlynn, Gearoid (Adams) and Andy Ward who have come in and freshened things up a bit.

“I think everyone is ready for it and this is the game that they have all been drilling into us, that we have to be ready for.”

 

Same path

The counties have travelled the same road over the past three seasons.

Both won successive promotions before suffering relegation last term and now find themselves in Division 3 yet again.

During their Division 4 (2009) and Division 3 (2010) campaigns, Antrim secured the league points while it was the Westerners who carried off the silverware when winning the divisional finals.

Last year’s defeat was hard to take for Sweeney due to the manner and significance of the reverse, but he said the preparations have all been geared towards Saturday’s game and getting the best possible start.

“I would say some of the boys are sick of playing them but I suppose I’m not,” laughed the St Brigid’s clubman.

“I didn’t even realise we had played them so much but they are one up on us and this one is to bring it level.

“But none of that matters as it’s all about getting promotion again.

“That’s the big thing for us and it is especially the case for anyone like me who was involved last year.

“Injuries hit us really badly but on top of that we didn’t play as well as we can.

“We are pretty injury free this year and have a full squad so hopefully we can do ourselves a bit of justice after last year.”

 

New faces

Antrim manager Liam Bradley has introduced new faces this year along the sideline as well as the panel.

Former Derry star Paul McFlynn and Gearoid Adams have been drafted in to offer their expertise on football matters while former Ulster rugby flanker Andy Ward has added a new dimension in the physical stakes.

It was noticeable during the McKenna Cup that Antrim’s style of play has altered to some degree but Sweeney says this is merely adapting to the strengths of the new players rather than a conscious decision to employ a new philosophy.

“We are working on the same sort of system but everything is just down to hard work and everyone has bought into it,” added Sweeney.

“Andy Ward has come in and the weights sessions have been great.

“I’m not saying last year’s weren’t but it’s great having someone there who has been in and around professional set-ups as it makes our own seem that bit more professional and everyone has really bought into it.

“It’s all well and good being given programmes but it’s all about applying yourself and then putting your head in the way during a match.

“There are a few new boys like ‘Bam’ (Brian Neeson), Michael Armstrong and that.

“In the McKenna Cup it’s all about experimenting but ‘Bam’ is lethal and you have to play to his strengths and the other strengths in the team.

“There are players missing like CJ (McGourty) who is injured so it’s all about adapting. I suppose you just do whatever it takes to win.”

With three home and four away games scheduled for this year’s league campaign, it is vital Antrim start with a victory in order to build some momentum.

There is no doubt Sligo will pose problems under the Casement Park lights but Sweeney is confident that the hard work done so far can help get them over the line and make up for last season’s failure against the Connacht side.

“You say at the start of every year you have to win all of your home games and make Casement a fortress,” admitted the Queen’s student.

“That starts with Sligo but it’s going to be tough because they are a good team.

“There will be no underestimating them as they have won a game more than us recently but it will be great to get going again and hopefully get the win.”

 

Free admission for kids

Antrim PRO Brendan Mulgrew has appealed to clubs from across the county to organise their juvenile members and bring then en masse to Casement Park for Antrim’s home National League games – beginning next weekend.

All clubs have been contacted and reminded that kids gain free entry into the games, as long as they are accompanied by an adult.

“We have decided that to encourage more supporters to attend, for every 10 kids we will also allow a mentor or parent in free,” said Brendan.

“Hopefully clubs will get organised and make an event out of it for their young members.

“I would ask supporters to put on their county colours, dig out the flags that were on display in Clones and Tullamore in 2009 and help generate some Saffron support for our county teams.

“If there is enough demand we will open extra space along the terracing behind the Andersonstown Road end and let that become the gathering point for kids to cheer on Antrim.

“Our football and hurling squads put a huge effort into preparing for these games and they deserve support.

“Too many times there are more away supporters than Saffrons at Casement and I think it is time to change that.”

It would be helpful if clubs who intend to come along contact me in advance to allow for better planning. Please email pro.antrim@gaa.ie

Antrim’s first home National Football League match is against Sligo at 7.30pm on Saturday February 4.  Get official Antrim updates at www.twitter.com/@clubaontroma

 

Antrim NFL Fixtures

February 4 v Sligo (Home)

February 12 v Tipperary (Away)

March 3 v Offaly (Home)

March 11 v Roscommon (Away)

March 18 v Longford (Away)

March 25 v Wexford (Home)

April 8 v Cavan (Away)

 

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