Christy Ring Cup final @ Croke Park
Antrim 4-15 Carlow 5-23
By Brendan McTaggart
Leading up to Saturday’s Final, it felt like everything was finally falling into line for the Saffrons. Promotion and league winners, back to Division 1B and the Liam McCarthy Cup for 2018, just the Christy Ring Cup to attain and Antrim would accomplish the complete season and everything in the City and the Glens will be rosy.
It felt like we had entered the apex of that corner, the corner that would lead to the changing of fortunes for Antrim hurling. Woody, Sambo, Pappy and Neal Peden were orchestrating the perfect tune with Croke Park to play host to their masterpiece. Unfortunately for the Saffrons management, players and fans alike, the Antrim crescendo was unceremoniously destructed by a tidal wave of red, gold and green – no Boy George of Carlow-Chameleon pun required. The Barrowside symphony derailed the Saffron dreams at Headquarters with James Doyle the man primarily responsible for further Christy Ring heartbreak for Antrim. The St Mullins man finished the final with a personal tally of four goals and one point in a breath taking display to break Saffron hearts. Doyle was ably assisted by Denis Murphy who was metronomic from placed ball, 11 efforts at target, 11 white flags raised. Perfection.
In a flawless first half, everything Carlow touched turned to gold and it was the complete 70 minute performance from the Barrowsiders that Antrim have been striving towards. So many times in the last 13 to 14 months, joint manager Dominic McKinley had been frustrated by Antrim’s inability to perform for the full 70 minutes but always felt that his team were capable of achieving that goal. The Saffrons have shown a steely resolve this season and in the three previous outings against Carlow that showed the green shoots of improvement had finally sprung. On Saturday they took their eye off the ball for a ten minute period in the first half and it was all the invitation the Barrowsiders needed. They scored 3-6 in the final ten minutes of the first half, Doyle with a hat trick while Antrim mustered 1-1 in reply, Eoghan Campbell with the last touch to get the sliotar over the line. Three brilliant goals and nothing Chrissy O’Connell could do with them. Indeed were it not for the bravery and brilliance of the Loughgiel man in the opening minutes at Croke Park it could have been much worse for the Saffrons. O’Connell, as he has done on countless occasions this season, pulled off a top class save from point blank range and recovered to repeat the fete seconds later. Was that an early sign of things to come? It didn’t feel like it at that time. Antrim, although slow in starting, did hurl well in the opening quarter and took the lead on a couple of occasions. Arron Graffin with his first start in two years for Antrim was having a great game with club mate Paddy Burke and Captain Simon McCrory also leading the way before the wheels came off thanks to the Barrowsiders wrecking machine that is James Doyle.
James Doyle’s four goals, three of them in the last ten minutes of the opening half, desroyed Antrim’s Christy Ring chances.
11 points separated the sides at the short whistle and it was going to take a monumental performance from Antrim to drag themselves back into the game. They regained their mojo and gave Carlow their all after the restart but unfortunately for Antrim, Carlow were in no mood to capitulate. Antrim threw everything they had, including the proverbial sink in the second half and Carlow returned it with interest. The second half was a fascinating face-off between two gladiators giving everything in their arsenal to gain an upper-hand. Antrim introduced Daniel McKernan at half time and he along with fellow Sarsfields man Niall McKenna had a major influence on the second half. McKenna was introduced during the first half and showed glimpses of the brilliance he produced at the same stage just 12 months ago against Meath, twice. Ciaran Clarke scored the first of two second half goals after just four minutes of the second half to renew the Saffron charge and breathe fresh impetus into the game but another Carlow major just five minutes later all but extinguished any hopes of a Lazarus like recovery. Captain Martin McKavanagh this time with the finish, adding to the two points he had already registered at the start of the second half.
Antrim continued to show the renewed belief instilled this season with Matthew Donnelly performing well when introduced into the Saffrons defence and a Neil McManus goal from a 21 yard free kept the Saffron faithful dreaming. When Clarke scored his second major shortly after, the Carlow lead was reduced to eight points with still 14 minutes remaining. Game on and the Antrim support began to believe once more only for Colm Bonnar’s men to hammer the final nail in the Saffron Christy Ring coffin. Doyle with his fourth goal of the match along with four Barrowide points in the space of ten minutes was replied to by a solitary white flag from a Clarke free. Game over. Three Saffron points unanswered was a case of too little too late for Antrim before Eoghan Campbell’s game was cut short for a dangerous tackle on substitute Seán Whelan. A red card brought from pure frustration more than anything but it spelled the end of the Saffron challenge. A free from Carlow Captain Kavanagh on the stroke of full time gave the Barrowsiders an 11 point victory and Christy Ring back to Carlow for the third time and ending an eight year absence.
Chrissy O’Connell; Simon McCrory; John Dillon; Stephen Rooney; Ciaran Johnston; Paddy Burke; Arron Graffin; Conor McKinely (0-1); Paul Shiels (0-1); Neal McAuley; Conor McCann; Eoghan Campbell (1-00); Conor Johnston; Neil McManus (1-2, 1-1 free); Ciaran Clarke (2-9, 7 frees, 1 ’65)
Subs: Niall McKenna for N McAuley (26 mins); Daniel McKernan (0-1) for C McCann; Paddy McGill (0-1) for P Shiels (48 mins); Matthew Donnelly for J Dillon (50 mins); Conal Cunning for Conor Johnston (67 mins)
James O’Carroll; Alan Corcoran; Paul Doyle; Gary Bennett; Richard Coady; David English; Richard Kelly (0-1); Jack Kavanagh; Diarmuid Byrne (0-3); John Michael Nolan (0-2); Martin Kavanagh 1-3, 1 free); James Doyle (4-1); Denis Murphy (0-11, 11 frees) Eddie Byrne; Paul Coady (0-1)
Subs: Kevin McDonald for J Kavanagh (43 mins); Chris Nolan (0-1) for P Coady (46 mins); Seamus Murphy for D Byrne (58 mins); Jack Murphy for D Murphy (68 mins); Seán Whelan for J Doyle (inj)
Ref: Mick Murtagh (Westmeath)