Saffrons deny the Faithful with late, late majors

Allianz Hurling League

Division 2a

Sunday March 8

Antrim 2-14 Offaly 0-20

Brendan McTaggart reports from Bord na Móna O’Connor Park, Tullamore

The fat lady wasn’t exactly singing in O’Connor Park but she had cleared her throat a couple of times and was waiting for her autocue to start when Antrim staged the mother of all comebacks.

Six down with six minutes of injury time signalled, Antrim could have been forgiven for turning their thoughts there and then to a meeting with the Faithful County in a weeks time.  Not so.  The game entered the 77th minute when Neil McManus took his tally to 1-13 for the game, a gargantuan effort from the Ruairi Og man. Less than a minute later team captain, Conor McCann fired the sliotar to the back of the Offaly net, his second goal in as many games and with the final whistle coming from the resulting poc out, the natives were restless and Antrim breathed a sigh of relief.

The momentum is still there, albeit that same momentum stuttered in Tullamore.  Seven points down after the opening 11 minutes, they looked a shadow of the side that played so well against Kerry seven days earlier.

They had made six changes from that side, the majority of which were enforced as Darren Gleeson confirmed after the game but they lacked any fluency and struggled to cope with the intensity Offaly brought to the middle third.  The home side owned those opening exchanges and Antrim needed to make changes and bringing Domhnall Nugent to centre half back allowed Ciaran Johnston to adopt a sweeping role.

Neil McManus runs away in triumph after scoring his team’s first goal during injury time of Sunday’s National Hurling League draw with Offaly in Tullamore

The change stopped the Offaly siege and they kept the home side to just two points in the 20 minutes that followed.  They were getting little or no change from an excellent Offaly defence however and were reliant on the free taking ability of McManus.  He would go on to score seven of Antrim’s eight first half points, Conor Johnston’s 20th minute score the Saffrons first from play.  Offaly’s attack was blunted with Ciaran Johnston playing as a sweeper and the St John’s man played the role to perfection while Nugent’s work rate was incredible in that first half.

Antrim trailed by four points at the short whistle but such was the force of the wind at their backs after the restart, it was far from an insurmountable deficit.  They abandoned the sweeper system but couldn’t get any joy from the middle third as Offaly dominated from poc outs and adapted to playing into the wind much better while David Nally scored three excellent points after the restart.

Antrim kept in touch with McManus’ frees but they needed goals to re-ignite their hopes of maintaining their unbeaten record.  They came close when Nugent had a 21 yard free saved by James Dempsey between the posts and when they did manage to score through substitute Alex Delargy, the referee had already blown for an earlier infringement, much to the annoyance of the travelling Antrim support in O’Connor Park.

Antrim centre back Ciaran Johnston in action during Sunday’s Allianz National Hurling League Division 2 draw with Offaly in Tullarmore. Pic by John McIlwaine

The allocated injury time had already been played when Antrim scored their first goal.  Ciaran Johnston sending the ball deep into the Offaly defence and while the timber flew, the sliotar fell to McManus who swivelled and hammered to the back of the Offaly net from an acute angle.

The Antrim support had barely finished celebrating their goal when lightning struck once more.  Another Johnston free landing to the heart of the Offaly defence where they couldn’t clear the danger and McCann pulled first time, making no mistake and preserving Antrim’s unbeaten record as they look to a promotion play-off against Kerry next weekend.

It wasn’t Antrim’s finest 70 minutes but they managed to dig out an excellent result against a very good Offaly side.  The Faithful County will wonder how on earth they managed to let this one slip but for now, Antrim are one game away from their goal.  Promotion.

TEAMS

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Matthew Donnelly, Stephen Rooney; Gerard Walsh, Ciaran Johnston, Aodhan O’Brien; Keelan Molloy, Ronan Molloy; James McNaughton, Neil McManus, Niall McKenna; Domhnall Nugent, Conor McCann; Conor Johnston

Subs: Conal Cunning for A O’Brien (blood sub 40); David Kearney for R Molloy (55); Conor Boyd for G Walsh (57); Eoin O’Neill for J McNaughton (67); Alex Delargy for Conor Johnston (67)

Scorers: Neil McManus 1-13 (10f 1’65); Conor McCann 1-00; Conor Johnston 0-1

Offaly: James Dempsey; Ciaran Burke, David O’Toole-Greene, Michael Cleary; Brian Watkins, Dan Doughan, Brendan Murphy; Leon Fox, David King; Colm Gath, Jason Sampson, Peter Geraghty; David Nally, Sean Cleary, Eoghan Cahill

Subs: Ben Conneely for M Cleary (21); Ross Ravenhill for C Gath (HT); Sean Dolan for J Sampson (57); L Langton for E Cahill (64); Oisin Kelly for S Cleary (70)

Scorers: Eoghan Cahill 0-11 (7f); David Nally 0-3; Peter Geraghty 0-3; Brian Watkins 0-1; Brendan Murphy 0-1; Sean Cleary 0-1

Referee: David Hughes

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