Saffrons are older and wiser

THERE are any number of ways to deal with defeat.

Some people are able to rationalise their disappointment, to place it in its proper context. Like Boris Becker. The German once reacted to a shock exit from Wimbledon by remarking that he hadn’t started a war and no-one had died.

Sonny Liston took the opposite view. The heavyweight champion of the world was so despondent at having lost his crown to a young Cassius Clay that he was prompted to remark that even elevators didn’t stop for him anymore.

Others react more pragmatically.

When Antonio Oliveira’s Portugal side lost a European Championship qualifier to Ireland in Lansdowne Road in 1995, the manager shrugged it off and declared: “I consider this defeat to be the mother of future victories”.

Portugal didn’t end up as European champions the following year but a 3-0 win over Ireland in Lisbon seven months after that loss in Dublin meant that they at least reached the finals in England. Jack Charlton’s side didn’t.

Tomorrow, the Antrim footballers will be afforded the opportunity to write a similarly redemptive story when they face Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster championship 10 months after losing to Mickey Harte’s men in the provincial decider.

Liam Bradley’s side brought heady ambitions and thousands of excitable supporters to Clones that day but the flurry of saffron flags that greeted the pre-match parade began to disappear within minutes of the throw-in.

By the time the team returned to Belfast that night the realisation had already dawned that, impressive as their opponents had been, the seeds of defeat had been sown in their inability to deal with the bright lights and the big stage.

“I think you’re right,” says Michael McCann. “Last year’s Ulster final, once we got settled I thought we played some great football. We looked a different team than we looked in the first 20, 25 minutes, but we had left ourselves with too much to do.

“It was a bridge too far. It’s a more experienced team now. I know we’re only a year older but even what we’ve learned in the last few months ... getting another promotion has set us up well but league football means absolutely nothing.”

Well, not quite nothing. Two successive league promotions have fused with their unexpected championship run last summer to propel Antrim into this year’s All-Ireland on the front foot and such a sustained period of improvement has inevitably raised the expectations surrounding Ulster football’s most successful reclamation project.

McCann can understand that but he can’t countenance talk of another meandering summer campaign or an Ulster title right now, not when the first topic on the championship agenda is a meeting with Tyrone.

Daunting a start as it is, the odds have swung slightly in Antrim’s favour since the sides last met. Tyrone’s own form — they were lucky to claim the four points they did during their slide into Division Two – has seen to that.

For all that, they are still the barometer on which every team in Ulster most use as a barometer.

“You want to see how much you have come on. A bit of form last year sort of carries you through but you want to see how well you do and see who the leaders are going to be because it’s always nerve-wracking in the first championship match. It’s always interesting to see what players are going to step up.

“Not so much the underdog tag but the surprise element has gone from us a wee bit.

“We didn’t plan it that way, that we were going to be this surprise package in the championship, it just worked out that way. Obviously there will be more teams watching us this year and the opposition next week will be watching as well.”

McCann is confident that they will stand up to the scrutiny. Little details tell him they will. This time last year he used to look at the guy next to him in the dressing room and hope he would do his job in the big games. Now he looks at the same players and knows they will.

For all the doubts swirling around Tyrone right now, they remain favourites to retain their Ulster title and third favourites for the All-Ireland with most bookies.

“Yes, and we’re certainly in no position to do it (take Tyrone lightly), a team like us that’s trying to climb the table. I know we’re in the same (league) division as them now but they’re a different type of team and come championship they’ll turn it on.”

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