Classy Clarke steers Antrim to opening win

Joe McDonagh Cup

Antrim 4-25 Westmeath 1-15                                                     

Sunday October 25

Brendan McTaggart reports from Corrigan Park, Belfast

Billed as their biggest hurdle in the McDonagh Cup campaign, Antrim cleared it with some to spare.  19 points to be precise.  Antrim were simply awesome on Sunday afternoon as they dismantled Westmeath with an excellent team performance.

The Saffrons amassed 4-18 of their tally from open play with nine different scorers while their defence had all the answers to any questions Westmeath put their way.  Phelim Duffin, Gerard Walsh and Joe Maskey all commanding in the back six while Paddy Burke played his roll at the heart of the defence to perfection.

Star of the show Ciaran Clarke gave the Westmeath defence a torrid time.

Eoghan Campbell and championship debutant Ryan McGarry dovetailed well in midfield, the first time they had paired up in the starting 15 but they looked comfortable throughout.  Up front is where the magic happened.  Niall McKenna and Keelan Molloy sharing eight points equally, Conor McCann imperious with 1-3 in a superb display on the edge of the square while Dan McCloskey worked tirelessly and unselfishly for his team.  The star of the show however was one Ciaran Clarke.  The Ballycastle man was back to his impish best with his trickery and blinding pace in a performance that left the Westmeath defence dizzied.  A replacement for the unavailable Conal Cunning, Clarke finished with 2-8 and had a hand in the other two Saffron goals, plus he created so much more on the day in a scintillating display.

With COVID having hit the camp during the past week, Antrim were without the services of the twin attack of Conal Cunning and James McNaughton.  The pair were superb against Kerry seven days ago and there was some concern as to whether the Saffrons could hit the attacking heights they showed in Tullamore.  Those fears and concerns were allayed in the first half at Corrigan Park.  Playing against the wind, Antrim started well with Clarke’s fourth minute major helping to settle them into the game. 

Joe Maskey in action during the opening half

Westmeath settled soon after with Darragh Clinton looking dangerous in attack but their radar was off target.  The elements were in their favour but Brendan Murtagh struggled from placed ball and Antrim benefitted from their wastefulness after the first half water break.

Trailing by one point, the Saffrons went through the gears with Clarke accuracy from frees unerring while Niall McKenna was busy in the middle third.  Antrim’s second goal came in the 32nd minute and Clarke turned provider.  Claiming the sliotar on the right hand side, he left his man trailing in his wake before finding Conor McCann in the middle with a one handed flick.  The Antrim captain side stepped one challenge superbly before hammering home to give his side a five point lead.

Five was increased to seven by the short whistle and Antrim turned the screw in the second half.  Gerard Walsh, Eoghan Campbell and Clarke all getting on the scoreboard in response to a brace of frees from Murtagh.  Antrim had extended their lead to 11 points before they scored their third goal and Clarke’s second.  A long poc out from Ryan Elliott landed beyond the Westmeath ‘45and McCann rose highest to claim.  Finding McCloskey on the break, the Loughgiel man tore through the Westmeath defence before passing to Clarke who made no mistake.

Naill McKenna breaks clear of his marker to send over a point

The fourth major came just three minutes later.  Aodhan O’Brien collecting a break from McCann and firing home to give Antrim breathing space and a 16 point lead with just over a quarter of the game remaining.

Westmeath’s goal came with the next attack with Niall O’Brien claiming the sliotar after Elliott partially cleared a dropping ball but it was a small blip in a total performance from Antrim.  After the second half water break, they continued to push.  They were relentless and showed a cutting edge, a confidence and a swagger that we’ve rarely seen from a team in the Saffron shirt.  A belief in their own ability that allowed them to lord the final quarter.

Man of the match Clarke celebrates after scoring his second goal

A further 10 points after the water break with Clarke, McKenna, Keelan Molloy getting their name on the score sheet with substitutes Damon McMullan and Simon McCrory.

It was a poor display from the Lake County but that should not take anything away from the Saffrons.  They blitzed Westmeath for the full 70 minutes and never allowed the visitors to Corrigan Park to get any momentum.  Another superb performance where everyone contributed and just like last week against Kerry, another performance where a number of men put their name forward for the man of the match.  There’s no doubting last weeks game against the Kingdom helped the Saffrons to hit the ground running, the ground leads to Carlow next Saturday. 

Team manger Darren Gleeson and selector Johnny Campbell share a joke as they watch the closing stages from the sideline.

TEAMS

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Matthew Donnelly, Stephen Rooney; Gerard Walsh (0-2), Paddy Burke, Joe Maskey; Eoghan Campbell (0-2), Ryan McGarry; Niall McKenna (0-4), Aodhan O’Brien (1-00), Keelan Molloy (0-4); Dan McCloskey, Conor McCann (1-3), Ciaran Clarke (2-8, 7f)

Subs: Nicky McKeague for A O’Brien (51); Damon McMullan (0-1) for R McGarry (58); Ryan McCambridge for D McCloskey (61); Ronan Molloy for G Walsh (63); Simon McCrory (0-1) for E Campbell (65)

Westmeath: Eoin Skelly; Johnny Bermingham, Tommy Doyle, Conor Shaw; Aaron Craig, Aonghus Clarke (0-1), Cormac Boyle; Robbie Greville, Jack Galvin; Niall Mitchell (0-1), Derek McNicholas, Joey Boyle; Niall O’Brien (1-2), Brendan Murtagh (0-7, 6f 1’65), Darragh Clinton (0-4)

Subs: Eoin Price for J Galvin (23); Allan Devine for D McNicholas (HT); Alan Cox for C Boyle (57); Shane McGovern for J Bermingham (61)

Referee: Sean Stack (Dublin)

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