Emma Kelly - an Oak on the other side of the line

Former Derry star plotting the Oakleafers' downfall on Sunday

Emma Kelly - an Oak on the other side of the line

Antrim manager Emma Kelly in club action for St Paul's. (Pic: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile)

Derry may have an Antrim duo at the helm this season, but there will be a familiar face on the sideline for Antrim at Celtic Park this weekend.

Former Desertmartin, Glen and Derry player Emma Kelly took over as the Saffrons' manager on the eve of the new season.

She played camogie for Ballinascreen and football with Desertmartin alongside current Derry players Nuala Brown and Tomaisina Cassidy.

When the Martin's folded for a season, she played for Glen with current Derry players Caoimhe Kirkpatrick (nee Moran) and Danielle Kivlehan.

In the Derry colours, she soldiered with Ciara Moore who is still part of Odhran McNeilly's Oakleaf plans. When it looked like Derry weren't going to have a team, she moved to play for the Saffrons and was later part of their 2012 All-Ireland junior winning team.

After not being part of manager Dee McConville's plans for this season, she had resigned herself to the fact her county career was over, while still playing for St Paul's, to whom she transferred when moving to Belfast for work.

When McConville stepped down as manager on the cusp of the league, Kelly's phone was hopping with players urging her to take the job, followed by a call from the Antrim Chairperson asking her to take on the role in an interim basis.

“So it is sort of forced retirement...I am hardly going to put myself on,” Kelly jokes. “I turned 36 last month, so it was about time somebody stepped into the role (senior manager) anyway.

“I coached most of the senior squad going up through underage,” Kelly said of her time in charge of various Antrim Development squads.

Kelly enlisted the help of Down All-Ireland winning forward Kyla Trainor as Head Coach and the duo got to work with a trial process to get a squad of players drawn up for the new season. Now confirmed as manager, Emma looks ahead to a five year plan of development.

“We opened up the trials to every club, regardless of division. If girls want to trial for a county team, then they should be given the opportunity and it was the same in Derry when I was playing,” Kelly points out.

She listed Antrim and Derry under the same umbrella, sleeping giants of the ladies game. There is youthful tinge to the Saffrons' squad. There are five current minors on board, with a group of talented players still in their first year of minor left to their own grade and to focus on their studies for now.

“With me out, Cathy Carey is the oldest...she ticks that box now,” laughs Emma. “The next oldest would be 26 or 27, so we have a range all the way down to 16 or 17, so it is a good mix.”

Going down the years, there would've been a core of players putting their shoulder to the wheel of Antrim football. Others, came and went, with some coming in at the last minute on the basis of a reputation earned elsewhere. The new management duo have a different outlook, based on their experiences on squads down the years.

“We know what we hated when we were playing, you don't like people walking into panels,” Kelly states. “We have stamped that out. If you're not committing, if you haven't haven't been at training and haven't told us...you're gone. It is as simple of that.”

The starting team and squad will be picked based on Antrim performances. The seven of her St Paul's clubmates have been told they will be judged on their commitment and application to the county.

“I don't care who you think you are or what you think you are, we're out to win and put the best team out,” Kelly adds. “You will be taken off and put on as we see fit and I think they are buying into it. There is a buzz, that things are going to be done right and people aren't going to walk out.

“We are putting changes in place that we have girls there who want to play for the county. We have 30 girls who will commit to being there, they mightn't be the best 30 in the county talent wise, but if you are the best in the county that are going to commit and work together at bringing the county on, that's the way we are going.”

Emma, who works in Sports Development, looks on the Antrim job as a five-year project. Getting out of Division 4 figures in her thoughts.

“We obviously want to compete this year, we came in late but there is a good buzz and a lot of talent there, so we will hopefully compete well. It is a building process and there is a lot of talented young girls coming though.

“They'll be playing along with the likes of (Aislinn) McFarland, Tosh (Niamh McIntosh ), Cathy (Carey) and Aine Tubridy, who will all bring them along in the setup.”

Derry and Antrim will meet in the Ulster final later in the season and Sunday will be a marker on how the season will fare out.

With a mixture of both counties, in opposite corners, it will be an interesting Sunday ahead.

LISTEN: Interview with Derry's Anna Frizelle.  Click here...

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