Antrim fightback comes up just short

Allianz National Hurling League – Division 2A

Saturday January 26

Antrim 2-16 Kerry 1-21

Brendan McTaggart reports from Corrigan Park, Belfast

After 15 minutes of the Allianz National League opener at Corrigan Park, it looked like it was going to be a long, long afternoon for Antrim.  10 points in arrears and down to 14 men, the Saffrons weren’t at the races at all.

A gargantuan effort followed with two goals from Eoin O’Neill, the second already a contender for goal of the season and despite another red card, Antrim pushed the Kingdom to the pin of their collar in the face of adversity.  In the end, it wasn’t to be.  The history books will mark down an opening day defeat for Antrim with Kerry making the long journey home with the points after a two point win.

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It’s hard to fathom the difference in the Antrim performance from the opening quarter to what followed after.  To say it was night and day would be an understatement.  The concession of an early soft goal where the normally reliable John Dillon was caught in possession and the sending off of Nicky McKeague after just eight minutes had Antrim on the backfoot.  Kerry were relentless with Jordan Conway and Jack Goulding causing the Saffrons defence major headaches while Michael Boyle at centre half and full-back Bryan Murphy were imperious.  Goulding with the major in the fourth minute while Jordan and Shane Conway were cutting loose at will.

Antrim struggled for a footing but got a break in the 24th minute when Kerry ‘keeper Martin Stackpoole dropped a high delivery from Sean Duffin.  The sliotar went loose and O’Neill capitalised by sending the ball over the line.  It cut the Kerry lead to seven but re-energised the Saffrons and with James McNaughton in top form, Antrim were making light of playing with a man less.

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The Antrim attacking unit were much more dangerous with O’Neill and Ciaran Clarke a bundle of energy and chasing everything.  They created a second goal chance moments after O’Neill’s major with Nigel Elliott going through a mountain of work before finding Clarke.  The Ballycastle mans effort was partially blocked and Antrim recycled before Conor McHugh fired over.

Six points separated the sides at the interval, Shane Conway’s fifth point of the half in injury time the pick of the scores.  A classy pick up and strike that was so instinctive it had all in attendance applauding.

Antrim were going to need something bordering super-human to get anything from the game and after just five minutes of the restart they looked like completing mission impossible.  A brace of McNaughton frees preceded O’Neill’s second major.  Wide on the left and 30 yards from goal, the man they call Sammy found the top bin with Stackpoole motionless on the goal line for the Kingdom.

The Kerry response was pivotal.  They scored four of the next five points with Shane Conway (two frees), Jordan Conway and Padraig Boyle splitting the uprights with McNaughton’s third free of the half Antrim’s solitary response.

Antrim maintained their work rate and intensity and while half time substitute James O’Connell fired over his first of two points in the 50th minute a brace of points from Shane Conway re-established a five point lead for Kerry with 15 minutes remaining.  The Kingdom were finding spaces more freely and overworking an Antrim defence who were putting in a heroic display and despite the numerical disadvantage, the Saffrons finished the match strongly.

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McNaughton fired over a brace of white flags (one free) was answered by a Kerry point from a Shane Conway side line.  Keelan Molloy and Shane Conway (free) swapped scored in the 63rd minute before Antrim’s hopes took another knock out blow.  Another red card, this time Molloy for a second bookable offence and Antrim would have been forgiven for throwing the towel in.

Not so.  In the five minutes that remained, the Saffrons played like men possessed.  O’Connell and McNaughton halving the Kerry lead going into injury time.  With Antrim repelling every Kerry attack, it looked like time would beat them.  In the end, it was a dubious call from the man in the middle.  Referee Sean Stack blew for an infringement by Sean Duffin but the Dublin official failed to spot the fouls on the Antrim man moments before.  Shane Conway pointed the resulting free to give the Kingdom a three point lead in the second minute of injury time.

Antrim pushed once again and had a chance at the death to earn a draw but McNaughton’s 21 yard free was deflected over the bar on the Kerry line denying Antrim what would have been a deserving share of the spoils.

An impressive performance after a shocking opening quarter from Antrim but defeat nonetheless.  They came into the contest starting with six national league debutants and missing key men but they gave everything they had to get something out of the game, something their efforts more than deserved.  For now, it’s time to rest the sores and re-evaluate.  Look to right the wrongs from the opening 15 minutes and build on a thoroughly encouraging performance.  Next stop, a meeting with the Royal County in Navan on Sunday.

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TEAMS

Antrim:  Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, John Dillon, Stephen Rooney; Ronan Molloy, Sean Duffin, Matthew Donnelly; Conor McCann, Conor McHugh; Nigel Elliott, James McNaughton, Nicky McKeague; Eoin O’Neill, Keelan Molloy, Ciaran Clarke.

Subs: James O’Connell for R Molloy (HT); Conor Boyd for E O’Neill (54); Connor Laverty for N Elliott (69); Connor Patterson for P Duffin (69).

Scorers for Antrim: James McNaughton 0-12 (8 f’s, 1 ’65); Eoin O’Neill 2-00; James O’Connell 0-2; Conor McHugh 0-1; Keelan Molloy 0-1;

Kerry:  Martin Stackpoole; Sean Weir, Bryan Murphy, Eric Leen; Jason Diggins, Michael Boyle, Fionan Mackessy; Brandon Barrett, Daithi Griffin; Michael O’Leary, Shane Conway, Michael Leane; Jordan Conway, Padraig Boyle, Jack Goulding.

Subs:  Dan Doggin for J Goulding (50); Michael Slattery for M Leane (58); James O’Connor for D Griffin (67).

Scorers for Kerry:  Shane Conway 0-13 (10 f’s); Jordan Conway 0-5; Jack Goulding 1-1; Padraig Boyle 0-3.

Referee: Sean Stack (Dublin)

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