Allianz Hurling League Roinn 2A Final
Venue: Bord Na Mona O’Connor Park, Tullamore
Referee: Liam Gordon
Seven months later than expected, Antrim’s promotion dreams are rekindled. The Mecca of Division One hurling is 70 minutes away but Darren Gleeson must lead his men through the Kingdom to get there.
It seems like a lifetime ago since the Saffrons last match, that epic encounter against Offaly in Tullamore where Antrim looked dead and buried. The Faithful men looked like they would be heading to the league decider but goals from Neil McManus and Conor McCann in injury time left those in attendance at Tullamore and form an Offaly persuasion shellshocked. In fairness I was just as bewildered at what had transpired in the last four minutes of the game.
The two late majors ensured Antrim went through their campaign unbeaten. A workman like performance against Wicklow and Mayo where they shook any cobwebs and rust off before a scintillating performance against Meath in Portglenone ignited their season and laid the foundation for their trip to Tralee and the performance of the season.
A six point victory against an unbeaten side and a final score that flattered Kerry. Antrim were superb. A slow start but for 50 minutes, Kerry couldn’t live with the Saffrons. 2-16 of their 2-20 came from open play and eight different scorers, Antrim had all but booked their position in the league decider before travelling to O’Connor Park to face Offaly in their last league match.
All eyes were set on Croke Park and a league final. The occasion was set but Covid had other ideas. The calendar got a rejig, club was king for a couple of glorious months and now the county have their chance to shine.
The panel is largely unchanged. Some have made way but the inclusion of Simon McCrory, Tiernan Coyle and Damon McMullan will strengthen the squad even further. The St John’s man shone for the Corrigan Park side in the championship while Coyle has been one of the best man markers in the county for a number of years. His inclusion is a long time coming in my book. His teammate McMullan has grown in stature for the last three seasons and has flourished into a top centre half.
Injury rumours are rife and after the rigours of a condensed championship, that is unsurprising. Domhnall Nugent’s elbow injury and exploits in the semi-final against Loughgiel means he is a doubt but I’d imagine a call won’t be made until the last minute. He can be the perfect foil for the lightning forwards Antrim have at their disposal along with McManus and Conor McCann.
Looking at Kerry, I doubt if the Antrim management team will read too much into their victory in Tralee. Their performance was mightily impressive but the home side were hit with a case of mumps in the week beforehand and weren’t at full strength. I would expect a different challenge on Sunday and a mighty challenge that will be.
The four-week break from the championship finishing will have given Gleeson and his backroom team plenty of time to run the rule over their squad. Challenge matches are one thing and training can get your fitness up but Sunday will be championship intensity. They can ill afford a slow start and will need to be reaching for the form they showed before the league was halted seven months ago. It is a league decider in name but this is the start of Antrim’s championship. When they take to the pitch on Sunday, it will mark 224 days since their drawn game in Tullamore, a ground that holds happy memories in recent times for the Saffrons. A win in last year’s McDonagh Cup against Offaly despite being down to 14 and their drawn game there on 8th March this year. Small things like that can make a huge difference in mindset ahead of what is a pivotal game.
Antrim’s league campaign began in late winter, blossomed in spring and comes to an end in the autumn of this year. A lot has happened in between but a Saffron victory on Sunday will go a long way to helping those memories of this year be less sour.
Antrim scorers so far:
Neil McManus 3-44 (30f 4’65); Niall McKenna 1-10; Eoghan Campbell 1-7; James McNaughton 1-6; Keelan Molloy 1-5; Dan McCloskey 1-5; Domhnall Nugent 1-4; Conor McCann 2-1; Alex Delargy 2-00; Gerard Walsh 0-4; Michael Bradley 0-3; Aodhan O’Brien 0-2; Ronan Molloy 0-2; Conor Johnston 0-2; Eoin O’Neill 0-1; Joe Maskey 0-1; Nicky McKeague 0-1; Conal Cunning 0-1
Conor McAllister; Ryan Elliott; Ryan McGarry; Keelan Molloy; Conal Cunning; Eoin O’Neill; Phelim Duffin; Nicky McKeague; Ronan Molloy (Dunloy)
Ryan McCambridge; Neil McManus; Eoghan Campbell; Paddy Burke; Martin Burke (Cushendall)
Simon McCrory; Domhnall Nugent; Michael Bradley; Conor Johnston; Ciaran Johnston (St Johns)
Damon McMullan; Tiernan Coyle; Dan McCloskey; James McNaughton (Loughgiel)
Ciaran Clarke; Matthew Donnelly (Ballycastle)
Aodhan O’Brien; Gerard Walsh (Rossa)
Niall McKenna (Sarsfields)
Joe Maskey (Naomh Éanna)
Conor McHugh (Cushendun)
Conor McCann (Creggan)
Stephen Rooney (St Pauls)