IT’S not always the case, but the nation’s media will have their eyes fixed on Antrim’s Joe McDonagh Cup game this Saturday. Their focus will not be on Neal Peden’s side though, rather their opponents Offaly.
The Faithful county is the story that people want to know about right now. Back-to-back losses have heightened the possibility of successive relegations which would result in Christy Ring hurling next year against the likes of Down and Derry having met Kilkenny and Galway last year.
Last week, manager Kevin Martin was removed from his position with Joachim Kelly put in place to see if he could turn their fortunes around.
There’s no denying that Antrim arrive in Tullamore as the supporting actors, but Ryan McCambridge sees no reason why they can’t secure a starring role by the time the end credits kick in.
“It’s unfortunate for Offaly, they’ve had a bad start to the Joe McDonagh,” said the Cushendall man.
“Obviously we know ourselves that it has added a lot more pressure to the match because a win will help us out greatly and a win for Offaly will go a long way to keeping them out of a relegation battle.
“We need to go down there, put the work in and try and get the right result.
“Offaly will be going out to prove a point and show the new manager what sort of hurling they can play.
“Personally for ourselves, I don’t think it’s something we’re going to be looking into too much.
“Our focus will be to go down there to get the win and build from there.”
It’s been a relatively positive start to the championship season for the Saffrons.
They started by trouncing Kerry in Dunloy before suffering an eight-point loss against competition favourites Laois last time out.
That was a game Peden’s men really could have won though with Laois goalkeeper Enda Rowland denying them on six separate occasions, including a superb penalty save from Neil McManus.
“Our focus since the National League finished was Kerry in Dunloy,” McCambridge continued.
“That was the big match for us, we had a lot to prove against Kerry because I think it was maybe five or six matches that we had played against them without getting a result.
“We had to ground ourselves for going to Laois the following week and we created a lot of goal chances, maybe seven or eight during the game.
“When you’re playing against a ‘keeper of that standard you need something special to beat him and unfortunately we were only able to get the one past him.
“There were still a lot of positives from the match. We fought right to the bitter end and we were unlucky that a few breaks of the ball didn’t go our way.
“Overall we have been happy with our performances in the Joe McDonagh to date.”
After two rounds last year Antrim were eyeing up a final spot as they sat on four points, but they ended up in a relegation play-off after losing three games on the trot.
No such safety net exists this year in the new five-team format with the bottom side dropping into the Christy Ring Cup – although Antrim did finish second from bottom in 2018.
They are at that pivotal stage of the competition. A win against Offaly and they will welcome Westmeath next week knowing that they will have a real shot at a final spot.
Lose, however, and they will have to start looking over their shoulders.
“You look at last year, we started off with two wins and next thing we find ourselves in a relegation play-off against Kildare,” McCambridge said.
“It’s such a competitive tournament and there’s absolutely nothing between the teams.
“There’s that reward of playing in an (All-Ireland) Qualifier, so everyone is so driven to win.”
The Faithful county enter the game on the back of losses to Leinster rivals Laois and Westmeath.
The O’Moore men earned a 4-22 to 3-21 victory in round one while Westmeath compounded their misery with a stunning 13-point win last time out.
Martin’s removal is unlikely to cure all ills though, according to former player and current pundit Michael Duignan.
“To me, it’s another short-term, reactionary move,” he told RTE. “We have to have an acceptance here in Offaly that Westmeath, Laois and Carlow – counties like this – have better players than us now. They’ve moved ahead of us. They’ve been beating us at minor and senior for a number of years now.
“And why is that? I think the county board, our clubs, our coaching staff and our players have to take responsibility. Along with Kevin. He’s been manager and, of course, some of it rests at his feet.”
An uncertainty seems to remain – an Antrim will hope to be the latest side to take advantage. Maybe then some more reporters will look their way.