High scoring Antrim claim McGurk Cup

Bank of Ireland McGurk Cup finalConor McGurk Cup 1Paula McGurk, widow of the late Conor McGurk, presents the trophy named in his honou to Antrim captain Conor McKinley after his team’s win over Down in Saturday night’s final at the Dub- Pic by John McIlwaine

Antrim 3-26-1-14 Down

By Kevin Herron from the Dub

Antrim claimed Ulster’s first inter-county silverware of 2018 with a comfortable and convincing 3-26-1-14 victory over Down in Saturday evenings Bank of Ireland McGurk Cup final at the Dub.

It was very much a tale of two halves in South Belfast, the first was evenly contested as Neil McManus’s free-taking edged Antrim 1-12-1-09 ahead after goals from Declan McManus and Nigel Elliott – the second half was anything but close as Antrim ran riot and further goals from Conor McCann and Maol Connolly helped the Saffrons to their first silverware of the season, two weeks ahead of their National League opener with All-Ireland champions Galway in Salthill.

Antrim were quickest out of the blocks despite the wet and blustery conditions and hit the opening two scores inside the first four minutes, Neil McManus converted a 65’ after two minutes and added a quick free to give the Saffron’s a 0-02-0-00 lead.

Malachy Magee replied for Down though Nigel Elliott restored Antrim’s two-point lead after the umpire originally waved it wide, referee Tarlach Conway overruled him and awarded a point.

Elliott doubled his account for the evening on ten minutes after a smart pop off from Conor Johnston, though a Mattie Donnelly foul gave Paul Sheehan the opportunity to narrow the deficit and Sheehan obliged – converting a free to make it 0-04-0-02 after 13 minutes.

A converted Neil McManus free and a wonderfully crafted point from Johnston gave Antrim a four-point lead with a quarter of an hour gone but just a minute later Down were back in business with the opening goal of the game.

Full-forward Paul Sheehan’s pop-off found the unmarked Declan McManus and the Down number eleven fired low past Chris O’Connell to make it 0-06-1-02.

Maol Connolly popped the ball over the bar for his first point of the evening in response, although the Saffrons were dealt a blow in the immediate aftermath as Ciaran Clarke hobbled off to be replaced by Eoin O’Neill.

Nigel Elliott forced Down goalkeeper Stephen Keith into a smart block a minute before Neil McManus converted a free to give his side a 0-08-1-02 lead on the 20th minute.

Antrim’s lead would be wiped out however as three unanswered points drew the Mourne men level, Rian Branagan hit his first of the evening to start the run of three successive scores and two quick points from Paul Sheehan had the sides level for the first time at 0-08-1-05.

Donal McKinley edged Antrim ahead again but within sixty seconds a converted Sheehan free had Down on terms for the second time.

The momentum was beginning to turn and a fourth point on the spin from a Sheehan free gave his side the lead for the first time on the 26th minute, that was added to by a point from An Dun Mageean Cup star Pearse Og McCrickard as Down led 0-09-1-08.

Antrim should have regained the lead just short of the half-hour mark as Conor Johnston picked out the run of Neil McManus whose goal shot was charged behind for a 65’ by covering defender Caolan Teggart.

McManus converted the resulting 65’ and on 32 minutes Antrim finally had the beating of Stephen Keith in the Down goal, Neil McManus did well to evade a shoulder challenge and offload to Nigel Elliott and the Dunloy wing-corner forward blasted past Keith to give Antrim a 1-10-1-08 lead.

Elliott was almost in for a second goal within two minutes but his shot was deflected over the bar – only for Paul Sheehan to reply through a converted 35th minute free.

The final score of the half fell to Antrim as a short Down puck out was turned over and Maol Connolly popped the ball over the bar to give his side a 1-12-1-09 lead after a closely contested 35 minutes of hurling at the Dub.

Antrim made a bright start to the second half and increased their lead within the opening sixty seconds through Neil McManus – the wing half forward rode a challenge and had the composure to take aim and fire over the bar before converting a 41st minute free.

Within a minute of McManus adding his second point of the half – Antrim found their second goal. Full-forward Conor McCann got on the end of a high ball into the forward line and he picked his spot past Stephen Keith to give the Saffrons a 2-14-1-09 lead.

Paul Sheehan hit Down’s first score of the half through a converted 44th minute free, but it was very much one-way traffic as Stephen Keith was forced to turn Nigel Elliott’s teasing shot over the crossbar when it looked to be heading underneath it.

Neil McManus (free) and Maol Connolly added to Elliott’s point to make it three successive scores, the game appeared to be beyond the reach of the Mourne men who hit back either side of Conor McCann’s point through Eoghan Sands and Danny Toner as Antrim’s lead was cut to nine, 2-18-1-12.

Connolly and Johnston increased their respective tallies for the evening with fine scores and a third goal was almost in the offering on 57 minutes – Conor McCann saw his stinging drive parried away by Stephen Keith and substitute Eoin O’Neill hit the side netting with the follow-up.

John Dillon and Sheehan (free) traded scores in the aftermath of his sides let-off but Antrim weren’t about to let-up and tagged on further scores through impressive midfielder Conor Johnston and wing-corner forward Connolly.

Substitute James McNaughton was to get his name on the score sheet before the evening was out as the Saffrons were comfortably 2-24-1-13 in front with five-minutes to play.

Things went from bad to worse for Down in the closing stages with the dismissal of full-back Caolan Teggart for a second yellow-card offence.

Maol Connolly converted the resulting the free conceded by Teggart and when a second opportunity in quick succession presented itself – from around twenty-one yards from goal Connolly drilled the ball high into the net to rub salt into the wounds and make it 3-25-1-13.

Connolly added a third successive on the stroke of full-time but it was Down youngster Pearse Og McCrickard who conjured up the final score of the game as Antrim ran out convincing 3-26-1-14 winners at the conclusion of a very one-sided second thirty-five minutes.

Antrim: C O’Connell, J Dillon (0-01), A Graffin, D Kearney, J Maskey, M Donnelly, P Burke, C McKinley , C Johnston (0-03), N Elliott (1-04), N McManus (0-08, 0-05f-0-02 65’), M Connolly (1-07,1-02f), D McKinley (0-01), C McCann (1-01), C Clarke. Subs: E O’Neill for C Clarke (17 mins), E Smyth for A Graffin (35 mins), D McCluskey for D McKinley (46 mins), J McNaughton (0-01) for N McManus (49 mins), D McGuinness for C Johnston (62 mins).

Down: S Keith, P McManus, C Teggart, M Hughes, E Coulter, M Fisher, M Magee (0-01), C Baillie, D Toner (0-01), R Branagan (0-01), D McManus (1-00), P Og McCrickard (0-02), D Sands, P Sheehan (0-08,0-07f), E Sands (0-01). Subs: D Rooney for E Coulter (35 mins), B Byers for P McManus (44 mins), M Patterson for M Fisher (60 mins).

Pics by Dylan McIlwaine

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