Only six weeks ago, St Gall’s trio, CJ McGourty, Chris Kerr and Michael Pollock left the squad. Not ideal, for any team, never mind a team who by many are regarded as one of the minnows of Ulster football.
Whilst it may not be the perfect situation for Antrim Manager, Liam Bradley, he seems content with the panel he’s taking to Brewster Park this weekend.
“I have a panel in place. There are players within the county who I’d want to have on the panel but for various reasons they can’t be. There are probably five or six players I’d love to have there but Fermanagh are in the same position. Every county has their problems. The difference was, Fermanagh’s situation happened during the league and ours happened after it. I’m happy I now have 35 players who want to play for the jersey,” says Bradley.
It’s not a new problem for Antrim. Last year controversy surrounded the McCann brothers, Michael and Tomás, who along with Tony Scullion opted out, after a dispute with then manager, Frank Dawson. Asked, why Antrim struggles to get their best players playing for the county, Bradley says:
“I think guys feel they’re not going to have any success with the county, so they tend to be more club orientated. They don’t feel any incentive to play for the county and you can’t force guys to come onto the county panel. But, I know we’ve 35 guys chomping at the bit, wanting to play now and I’d rather that, than someone who thinks it’s a bore.”
On Sunday, there’s likely to be a few new faces on the Antrim team. With 12 U21s on the panel, Bradley admits they are building for the future but that’s not taking anything from their expectations to get a victory this weekend.
“We’ve gone down the same road as the Antrim hurling Manager, Kevin Ryan and drafted in a number of U21s. We’re a very young team and it’s a team that is geared towards the future. The oldest player is Tony Scullion and he is 30.”
Indeed, Scullion is Antrim’s only major doubt. Bradley feels the Cargin man’s chances are 70/30 against him featuring, after his tore a hamstring five weeks ago.
“The game has just come a bit too soon for Tony. He hasn’t been training with us the last few weeks.”
Antrim had a training camp in Kildare just over a week ago to instil “the feel good factor” says the Glenullin man, and since the league they haven’t had any challenge games but opted for in-house matches instead.
Two players who have been showing well since coming onto the panel are Michael Armstrong from the O’Donovan Rossa club and Paul McCann from Cargin. With Chris Kerr having opted out of the team, Bradley will have to appoint a new man between the posts. There are three players vying for the number one jersey, under-21 keepers, Tiernan Hughes and Ronan Hanna along with Paddy Flood who was drafted into the squad after his soccer commitments with Ballyclare Comrades finished for the season.
Bradley says we will see a new look Antrim team this weekend: “There’ll be four or five players outfield making their championship debuts, as well as the keeper. It will be a very inexperienced team but I’m quietly confident. We’ve been working hard and if we bring our ‘A’ game, I think we can win.”
“I think in-house matches give us a better chance of looking at all the players. I don’t think playing challenge games against teams do anyone any good because you’re making changes for the sake of it.”
Antrim had a very disappointing Division Four league campaign. They finished third from the bottom, with only Carlow and London below them. Bradley admits it didn’t work out as they had wanted but he hopes they’ve addressed some of the issues, one being their tendency to leak goals, having let 11 past them during their league campaign:
“The league was disappointing. We were probably seen as one of the favourites to get promoted but unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. Whilst we were the second highest scoring team in the division, only one team conceded more than us as well. We should have won a lot of our games but we gave away silly goals at crucial stages, whether that was because of missing tackles, the black card rule or simply bad defending. Hopefully, against Fermanagh, we’ll be a far tighter unit because if we concede three goals against them we won’t win, it’s as simple as that.”
On paper, Fermanagh may be firm favourites but try telling that to Antrim when they run out at Brewster Park. The Ulster Championship always throws up surprises and Bradley is bringing this team to win, make no mistake about that.
“They (Fermanagh) finished third in Division Three and therein tells a bit about our chances. It’s a game we know we can win though. When the draw was being made, both teams were probably looking for each other. It’ll come down to whoever wants it most on the day.”
Bradley also feels the Erne men will benefit from the game being on home turf.
“Without a doubt, it’s a massive advantage. It’s worth two or three points. If you look at the stats, the percentage of teams who win at home is a lot higher. Referees tend to go with the home side on 50/50 decisions as well,” claims Bradley.
Whether those “two or three” points will be enough to see Fermanagh claim a place in the semi-final, remains to be seen on Sunday.