Wicklow were cut deep by last December’s TG4 All-Ireland Junior Final defeat to Fermanagh.
They were favourites and they had form but they were gunned down at Parnell Park by Fermanagh.
That was 2020 and it was a difficult year for sport. When Wicklow looked back on it, they didn’t even have the consolation of an All-Ireland Final appearance at Croke Park.
With the Intermediate and Senior Finals fixed as double-header at Croke Park on December 20, and Covid-19 ruling out the traditional triple-header, Wicklow and Fermanagh pitched up at Parnell Park for a December 5 Junior Final.
The early Christmas cheer went Fermanagh’s way and Wicklow faced into a dark winter of soul-searching and regret.
To their eternal credit, they didn’t shy away from it. Manager Mark Murnaghan stuck around and despite the absence of some players who were mainstays in recent times, Wicklow are back where they want to be.
There will be a fierce motivation within the Wicklow camp to get their hands on the West County Hotel Cup and regain Intermediate status following relegation in 2019.
But, as Meath will testify following All-Ireland Final losses at Intermediate level in 2018 and 2019, you can fall in successive deciders.
It’s a fate that may well befall Wicklow as they’re up against very good opponents in Antrim.
The Saffrons love nothing more than a battle, as evidenced by not one, but two, extra-time victories over Carlow during the 2021 Championship, including at the semi-final stage.
Antrim and Wicklow met in the group stages of the Junior Championship last month and just five points separated the sides.
With Antrim’s tails up following the Carlow win, they’ll start with real confidence but Wicklow were smooth in their semi-final win, 1-12 to 0-4 against Limerick in what could have been a tricky assignment for them.
Antrim will ask them questions, however, and the only county outside of Leinster on show at Croke Park on Sunday have many scoring threats.
Cathy Carey (1-21) and Gráinne McLaughlin (2-18) lead the way in the scoring stakes for Antrim but Caitlin Taggart (4-8), Aoife Taggart (3-5), Michelle Magee (1-9) and Teresa Mellon (2-6) have provided valuable contributions.
At the other end of the pitch, Wicklow have a player who’s aiming to end the day with not only a TG4 All-Ireland Junior medal, but also the ZuCar Golden Boot award as the leading scorer in the 2021 TG4 All-Ireland Championships.
With 0-35, Marie Kealy needs 12 points to move past Carlow’s Clíodhna Ní Shé and into first place.
Clodagh Fox (2-5) and Catherine Dempsey (2-5) have also been doing well for Wicklow, along with recently-married Laurie Ahern (0-8) and Sinead McGettigan (2-2).
Wicklow, in general terms, have been motoring nicely. Their winning margins throughout the Championship to date against the other four teams in the competition have been seven points (Limerick), eight points (Carlow), five points (Antrim), six points (Derry) and eleven points (Limerick).
To date, no team has managed to lay a glove on them but it is interesting to note that Antrim have come closest.
Wicklow are the team to beat, as they have been since the competition commenced, but Antrim will look to follow in the footsteps of fellow Ulster side Fermanagh by upsetting the formbook.
They lost the 2016 Final to Longford but Antrim were Junior winners in 2012 and 2009, so they do have some recent history.
In manager Emma Kelly, and coach Kyla Trainor (Down), Antrim have players who won All-Ireland medals as players. They’re a team not to be underestimated – and Wicklow will have to play very well to erase those painful pre-Christmas memories.
Wicklow (v Antrim): L Dempsey, M Healy, S.J. Winders (capt.), L Dunne; L Fusciardi, A Conroy, A Gillen; N McGettigan, S Delahunt; L Ahern, C Dempsey, R McGettigan; C Fox, M Deeney, M Kealy.
Antrim (v Wicklow): A McCann; D Coleman, A McFarland (capt.), N McIntosh; Á Tubridy, M Hanna, M Blaney; E Ferran, C Brown; N Enright, C Carey, G McLaughlin; A Taggart, M Magee, C Taggart.
The game will be live on TG4 at 11.45am.