Joe McDonagh Cup-Round 2
Antrim vs Laois @ O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, 3pm throw in.
Ref: Patrick Murphy (Carlow)
By Brendan McTaggart
Antrim hurlers return to championship action on Saturday and a trip to familiar surroundings. O’Moore Park, Portlaoise lies ahead for a 3pm throw in as Eddie Brennan’s Laois welcome the Saffrons to the midlands.
Having secured a comprehensive and eye-catching win against Kerry in Dunloy last weekend, Neal Peden and his management team have guided the Saffrons to the perfect start. A win against a side who have caused many a nightmare for Antrim in the past and an overall performance that warmed Antrim hearts on a cold Saturday evening in the north Antrim village.
St John’s clubman and Saffrons manager Peden was delighted with how his side put in a fully committed performance to the final whistle: “They stuck to the task. We set out with a plan and to a man they stuck to the task. We knew it would be a 20 player effort and the five players that came on and upped the pace.
“We have a panel now that we really believe in.
“We had to beat Kerry. They beat us the last couple of times and when people see what we did to Kerry today they’ll realise we’re a force.
“It’s a results business and we got the result today and that’s the most pleasing thing for us.”
All six of Antrim’s starting forwards had recorded scores before half time against Kerry. It’s not uncommon to happen in hurling but for a team who have been reliant on one or two players for scores in the past, this was a hugely pleasing statistic. Throw in the fact 13 players added their names to the list of Antrim scorers and you start to see the potential Peden had spoken about before the Kerry game. Off course one swallow doesn’t make a summer but it’s nice to hear the swallow sing and Peden was also pleased with his attacking options: “The lads that came off the bench scored as well. That is something we’ve been working on. We have key players like Neil (McManus) who we know will do a certain role but today the younger ones got the scores today as well. You can’t ask for more than that on the day but the way we drove on really pleased us. We weren’t satisfied with being three up, we kept at them and at them.
“Today it wasn’t just about the win. We went out and played a certain type of hurling that made sure we got the win.”
With two away matches in the coming weeks, Laois this weekend and Offaly in a fortnight, Peden acknowledged last Saturday’s match could have been seen as a must win game if Antrim were to have success in this years Joe McDonagh Cup: “There was a lot riding on it today, there’s a lot riding everyday but today was a big day for us after the league and the younger lads coming in.
“We’ve got a bit of momentum now. We’ll get out this week and push on. Get to Laois and push on. It’s not about hope anymore, we feel we’ve got a team where we can compete. This is our competition to compete in and we can.
“The manner of the win was good for our confidence as well. It wasn’t a one or two point win, we drove on and we have that belief now that we can do that. It’s about driving on and not looking back, that’s key.”
For all the attacking prowess Antrim showed against the Kingdom, they yielded just four points from open play. Were it not for the brilliance of Shane Conway from frees it would have been a greater margin of victory. Ryan Elliott in the Antrim goals was never tested and while Kerry came with negative tactics, the Antrim defence after a shaky start were never troubled as Peden continued: “We’re an energy team. We’re a young energetic team and we knew if we pressed those big strong men and they are a big strong team, they want to get you into clasp with their physicality. They do it in football and they’ve been doing it in hurling for years. But today when we got the ball into space we were much more agile and faster team.
“We coped in the back. We were strong and solid which was pleasing. We dealt with the high ball and that’s something we’ve been working so hard on. That breaking ball, getting under it and getting the ball away quickly.
“We talked about early delivery and we got that today. Things went to plan but we’ve always said that if things go to plan and the guys turn up and their attitude is right, we’re a good force.”
There’s no doubting it was a good win and a better performance. Antrim will need more of the same, if not an improved performance on Saturday against a Laois side buoyed by their victory on match day one of the McDonagh Cup.
A four point victory against the pundits’ favourites, Offaly has also given the O’Moore County momentum. A huge win for the Laois men and considering they also recorded 17 wides over the 70 minutes, it shows they were more than worthy of their victory. Goals from Cha Dwyer, Eanna Lyons and Paddy Purcell laid foundations with Mark Kavanagh on free duty. The returning Ross King and the ghost of championships past for the Saffrons adding four points for his side also.
In the recent past there is never more than a poc of the ball between Antrim and Laois with the Midlanders defeating the Saffrons on three occasions in 2018. Five points separated us when we were last in Portlaoise under the floodlights while a single white flag was all that came between Antrim and Laois in the Division 1b relegation play-off and last year’s McDonagh Cup – both matches in Dunloy and both matches that they should have won.
That’s in the past now and as Peden alluded towards after the Kerry game, it’s time to look forward to the future. Antrim will have a clean bill of health and a team that’s gelling nicely with the additions from last season. Maybe there was benefit to the Portugal training camp that the players had worked hard to fund in recent years after all? Food for thought.
Momentum is gathering, a win on Saturday and the dream can begin again. If only it was as simple as that. Laois are Antrim’s bogey team in recent times and any win in the midlands is always hard earned. It will take something special to leave Portlaoise with the winning start still intact but this side are capable.
Time to turn potential into reality.