By Daire Walsh
A double prize is up for grabs at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon when Antrim and Kerry clash in the Joe McDonagh Cup final (throw-in 1pm).
Not only will there be silverware on offer, but also a coveted spot in next year’s Leinster Senior Hurling Championship for the winner of this intriguing battle. Despite their geographical location, participating in the eastern province wouldn’t be an alien concept to either side.
While it was a qualifier group rather than the official championship itself, Kerry did compete against a host of Leinster teams in both 2016 and 2017. In addition to defeating Carlow and Westmeath, the Kingdom fell short to the likes of Offaly, Laois and Meath over this two-year spell.
They have since faced all five teams in the lower-tier hurling championships, including three in this year’s Joe McDonagh competition alone.
Antrim, on the other hand, have a longer history in Leinster. The Saffron county were granted a place in the province – along with Galway – back in 2009.
Whereas it proved to be an unqualified success for the Tribesmen (they have won the Leinster SHC on three occasions and reached four All-Ireland finals since making the move from the West), Antrim struggled to make a lasting impact.
Of the seven wins the Ulster men recorded in Leinster – out of 15 games played – five were in the Leinster qualifier group stages of 2014 and 2015. Outside of that, they overcame Laois in a preliminary round fixture in 2011 before getting the better of Westmeath at the same juncture two years later.
They secured a famous victory over Dublin in the 2010 championship, but that was in an All-Ireland qualifier. Relegation from the Liam McCarthy Cup followed in 2015 and they have been fighting to regain top-tier status ever since.
There will be a fascinating sub-plot on the sidelines for this game with former Tipperary goalkeepers Darren Gleeson and Brendan Cummins involved in the Antrim and Kerry management set-ups respectively. Gleeson deputised for the latter when the Premier county triumphed over Kilkenny in the 2010 All-Ireland hurling final.
He subsequently stepped into the breach after Cummins retired and was between the sticks when Tipperary regained the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2016. Whereas Cummins is selector/goalkeeping coach under the regime of Kerry manager Fintan O’Connor, his former understudy is the main man in the Antrim backroom team.
His first year in inter-county management has been a whirlwind one thus far. The Portroe man has been in charge of the Saffrons for 14 games and his only defeat to date was in the Kehoe Cup final way back in January.
He has already achieved success in the form of a National Hurling Division 2A title and will hope to complete a memorable 2020 on Saturday. Having seen off their challenge in round five of the league in March, Antrim also had the measure of Kerry in the delayed divisional decider at O’Connor Park, Tullamore on October 18.
Since then, the northerners recorded a 3-18 to 2-14 win against the Munster outfit in the group stages of the Joe McDonagh Cup at Corrigan Park on November 14. With all this in mind, Antrim will enter Sunday’s game as firm favourites to prevail.
As things stand, Antrim sharpshooter Ciarán Clarke is the top-scorer in this year’s competition. He has amassed an outstanding tally of 4-36 for an average of 12 points per game.
It is by no means a one-man show, however, as the Ballycastle native is one of three Antrim players in the top ten of the scoring charts.
Conor McCann has 4-9 to his name, while Michael Bradley has contributed an impressively tally of 1-10. The latter’s haul is particularly impressive, given he has made just two appearances in the competition.
After contributing 1-2 in the aforementioned win over Kerry, he shot eight points from play in a clinical 2-30 to 3-10 defeat of Meath at Pairc Tailteann, Navan just under a fortnight ago.
Of some concern to Gleeson and his coaches will be the fact that they conceded eight goals over the course of their four group games. Their tally of 14 goals scored was doubled that of Kerry, but the Saffron rearguard will have to be on guard in GAA HQ nonetheless.
With total of 2-36 in four encounters, Lixnaw’s Shane Conway is undoubtedly the go-to man in this Kerry side.
Just 22 years of age, Conway has already won two All-Ireland Minor ‘B’ (2015 and 2016) and two All-Ireland U21 ‘B’ (2017 and 2018) Hurling Championship titles with the green and gold. With the Joe McDonagh Cup being a second-tier competition, he will effectively be presented with a golden opportunity to complete a clean sweep of ‘B’ crowns this weekend.
It has been a fruitful year so far for Conway, who won his second successive Fitzgibbon Cup with UCC back in February.
His most impressive display for Kerry in 2020 was in the second round of this competition – an October 31 visit to Westmeath. He came away with a superb 1-12 to place the Kingdom on the brink of a final place.
Even in defeat to Antrim he was in outstanding form, registering 1-7 – including 1-4 from open play. He was one point behind Neil McManus in the Division 2A scoring charts as he contributed 1-49 in just five appearances (McManus played six times).
Regarded as the star attraction in the Saffron ranks for so long, McManus has been marked absent in recent weeks through injury. Clarke has stepped into the breach as dead-ball specialist and will aim to match Conway’s strike rate over the duration of the contest.
Like Clarke, Conway is surrounded by some fine operators. Kilmoyley’s Daniel Collins was a teenager when Kerry won the Christy Ring Cup in 2015 and he has claimed 3-3 for his county in their last two competitive fixtures.
A 1-2 haul from centre-forward against Antrim caught the eye and he later grabbed a brace of goals in a narrow success over Carlow as The Kingdom confirmed their place in this year’s final. Mikey Boyle also hit top form in this tie with a 0-4 salvo, the same tally he registered in the opening round victory at the expense of Meath.
In Collins, Conway and Boyle, there is a powerful attacking axis that has the potential to cause serious damage to any opposition in this grade.
Whilst Antrim will be expected to prevail, Kerry will not be going down without a fight.