Joe McDonagh Cup – Round 2 of 4
Antrim vs Carlow @ Netwatch Cullen Park, Carlow
Throw in: 3pm Referee: Cathal McAllister (Cork)
By Brendan McTaggart
Right, who had Antrim at -18 in the handicap betting for last weekend? No, me neither. A week on and it’s still hard to digest what happened in a cold and blustery Corrigan Park as the Saffrons dismantled Westmeath in the opening match of the McDonagh Cup. It was as close to the complete performance as I have witnessed from them and without a doubt, their best performance under the tenure of Darren Gleeson.
4-25 to 1-15. A 19 point mauling and a score line that didn’t flatter Antrim and suddenly that cold wind blowing through us that were lucky to be in attendance on the Whiterock Road didn’t seem as bitter. Lovely jubbly.
A match that some were fearful of was taken by the scruff of the neck by a brilliant team performance full of commitment, passion, desire, skill and Ciaran Clarke. What a performance. The Ballycastle man’s early goal was pivotal and his performance throughout was inspirational. 2-8, accurate from frees and he left the Lake County defence dizzied. Clarkey was back on form and it’s a special sight to see it in an Antrim shirt.
He had plenty of support however. Conor McCann on the edge of the square, chipping in with 1-3 and dominating the Westmeath defence. Dan McCloskey might have been the only forward who didn’t put his name on the list of scorers but his performance was tireless, selfless and contributed so much towards the Saffron cause. The half forwards turning the screw in the second half, Keelan Molloy and Niall McKenna sharing eight points equally and Aodhan O’Brien with a goal before getting the curly finger.
Defensively, it was another strong performance with the half back line peerless. Paddy Burke more often than not in the right place, at the right time. Gerard Walsh, galivanting up the line like a greyhound after the hare and leaving a trail of maroon shirts in his wake. Joe Maskey, a tall man as it is yet he played like he was seven foot tall. Ryan Elliott’s poc outs were perfect on the day. A mix of long and short in the second half while drilling passes low into the wind during the first 35 minutes helped Antrim to build momentum and make little of facing the elements.
The key factor in Antrim’s performance was their delivery of ball into the forwards. When you have a mix of strength and guile, pace and trickery, the world is your oyster. Antrim had Westmeath guessing and they reaped the rewards of a game plan that allowed their forward unit to flourish.
Saturday will be another test. The last time Antrim faced Carlow, there was four red cards and a 50 minute second half. Neil McManus, Mickey Armstrong and Joe Maskey all with injuries yet Antrim held on to win by three points. The Barrowsiders would have the last laugh however as they went onto win the inaugural McDonagh Cup, defeating Westmeath in the final that year as Antrim’s challenge faltered.
While Antrim face their third massive game in the space of 14 days, Saturday will be Carlow’s first competitive match since their relegation playoff defeat to Westmeath just before lockdown in March. It continued Carlow’s losing streak with his side failing to record the ‘W’ for the 13th match in succession after a tough campaign in the Leinster Championship in 2019 and league campaign this year. But Saturday begins their journey in a competition they know how to navigate and Antrim will have to be weary of their considerable attacking and physical threat.
The Saffrons themselves have a headache of sorts. The players who missed the Westmeath win due to COVID are now back in contention. A selection quandary for Gleeson and his backroom team, do they stick or twist? In a sense, it goes to show how far this Antrim team have come this year. Gleeson showed tremendous belief in his squad to go into a massive game against Westmeath with some star players missing and they repaid his faith in spades. There’s a strength in depth now within the squad and there’s no doubting they will be required before this campaign is finished but Gleeson has no problems in calling upon those who don’t make the starting 15 if he need arises.
In the recent past, Antrim have struggled to maintain their form. Two years ago, they obliterated Meath before the win against Carlow in Corrigan. That was their lot for the competition as defeats to Laois, Westmeath and Kerry followed. Last year, they defeated the Kingdom handsomely in their opening round and a memorable win over Offaly in Tullamore set up a ‘semi-final’ against Westmeath but defeat to the Lake County along with an earlier loss to Laois, narrowly in Dunloy meant they had to watch as those two counties made Croke Park on Leinster Final day to play the McDonagh decider.
The win against Kerry was good, last week against Westmeath was great. The performance levels upped and the wind is at the Saffron coloured sails. They will need to maintain those performance levels if not reach for another gear if they are to get anything from the trip to the Netwatch Cullen Park but there’s something telling me they have it in them.