Saffrons sail to final after shaky start

Joe McDonagh Cup – Round 4

Antrim 2-30 Meath 3-10

Saturday November 28

Brendan McTaggart reports from Pairc Tailteann, Navan

Job done.  After a shaky start where the Saffrons looked edgy and nervy, Antrim put in a near complete performance under the winter sun in Navan.  They outscored, outmanoeuvred, overpowered and dominated Meath.  Relentless yet controlled aggression.  Massive intensity and skill with touches from heaven as they took apart the Meath challenge. 

On a day where there was a possibility of the unthinkable, Darren Gleeson’s side fought some early inner demons before warming to the challenge.

Some stats. Everyone loves a good stat. 2-30 scored, 2-20 from play. 10 different scorers with three of the changes coming off the bench adding their name to the score sheet. Just eight wides throughout the 70 minutes and while goal chances came and went, this was an efficient, economical and powerful performance that showed the Saffrons have little sign of dropping their standards.

Man of the match Michael Bradley who hit eight points from play

If anything they’re raising them.  In McDonagh Cup campaigns gone by, they had the odd performance that gave us hope.  Kerry in Dunloy, Offaly in Tullamore, Meath in Pairc Tailteann.  This year, they’re building.  A crescendo of saffron and white that has taken them to the grandest stage of them all.  Croke Park on the biggest hurling day of the year.

In Pairc Tailteann, they were unyielding.  Once they got on top, Antrim didn’t look like lifting the proverbial foot from their opponents throat.  There was the odd moment after the opening quarter where the home side looked threatening but those could be counted in one hand such was the dominance of the Saffrons.  Ciaran Clarke was at his impish best once again top scoring with 0-12 (10f) while Michael Bradley was immense.  Five points in a breath taking first half and a further three after the half time whistle, the St Johns man played his best match of the year in a performance the Royals couldn’t live with.  Conor McCann failed to score a goal for the first time since February and while he had a couple of chances, the Antrim captain’s tussle with Shane Brennan was fascinating.  More for the lack of frees McCann received than anything but another strong performance with two points and in the thick of the action at all times.

Mattie Donnelly breaks out of defence to clear the danger

Nine points unanswered either side of half time proved to be the pivotal moment for Antrim and they racked up their biggest score of the year to send a message to the Kingdom, they are up for the challenge.

It was an uncertain start by the Saffrons as Meath took the fight to them in the opening quarter.  Jack Walsh and Ciaran Clarke opened the scoring but the home side scored the opening goal in the fifth minute.  James Kelly sending the sliotar long and with Walsh and Mattie Donnelly contesting on the edge of the square, the sliotar dropped into the net.

Antrim couldn’t find their fluency and Meath were quick to take advantage where they could.  James Kelly, Darren Kelly (free), Patrick Potterton and Patrick O’Hanrahan (free) got their scores to open a three point lead at the water break.  Clarke (two), James McNaughton, Conor McCann and Michael Bradley getting their names on the scoresheet for the Saffrons.

Antrim were still looking for fluency and Meath opened a four point lead before McKenna and McNaughton combined for the piece of magic the Saffrons required to spark them into life.  Combining beautifully to cut through the Royal’s defence, McKenna applied the finish to the bottom corner in the 25th minute.

Meath responded with O’Hanrahan’s second free of the game but Antrim and Bradley took over.  A run of six points unanswered, three from Bradley, two frees from Clarke and one from McCann gave the Saffrons a four point lead at the interval – 1-13 to 1-9.

Niall McKenna’s goal ten minutes before half time really settled the Saffrons

The Saffrons continued their vein of form after the restart with McNaughton, Campbell and Clarke (free) extending their lead to seven.  Meath brought an end to their scoring drought in the 42nd minute with their second goal.  Stephen Morris collecting the sliotar after a fumble in the Saffron defence and drilling home from 25 yards.

That was their last score for 23 minutes however as Antrim went through the gears.  A trio of points from Ryan McGarry, Clarke (free) and Bradley preceded their second goal in the 49th minute.  The sliotar was sent across the pitch where Dan McCloskey’s first touch in the air took him away from two Meath defenders and through on goal.  A delightful touch from the Loughgiel man that put him clear and he made no mistake with his chance.

Ciaran Clarke sends over his twelfth point of the game

A further run of seven unanswered points with Clarke’s accuracy from frees (three) along with scores from Michael Bradley and substitutes Nicky McKeague, Damon McMullan and Domhnall Nugent ensured the Saffron exhibition continued.

Daithi McGowan pointed in the 65th minute to give Meath their only white flag of the second half but Antrim continued in their pursuit of hurling happiness.  Bradley scoring his eighth before a brace from Clarke (one free) and McKeague’s second took them to 2-30.

Meath finished the scoring with substitute Damien Healy’s 21 yard free deflecting into the net but it was a mere blip in what was a quite superb second half by the Saffrons. 

A fourth meeting with the Kingdom in two weeks time, a chance to get their hands on the McDonagh Cup for the first time and their first time to play at All-Ireland final Sunday in 31 years.

The season goes into additional time, eyes still fixed on the main prize.  Croke Park awaits.

Substitute Domhnal Nugents breaks through the Meath defence before popping a hand pass out to Ciaran Clarke

TEAMS

Antrim: Conor McAllister; Phelim Duffin, Matthew Donnelly, Stephen Rooney; Gerard Walsh, Paddy Burke, Ryan McGarry; Eoghan Campbell, Aodhan O’Brien; Niall McKenna, James McNaughton, Michael Bradley; Dan McCloskey, Conor McCann, Ciaran Clarke

Subs: Damon McMullan for G Walsh (45); Domhnall Nugent for C McCann (45); Nicky McKeague for N McKenna (50); Eoin O’Neill for D McCloskey (60); Conor Johnston for R McGarry (65)

Scorers:  C Clarke 0-12 (10f); M Bradley 0-8; N McKenna 1-00; D McCloskey 1-00; C McCann 0-2; N McKeague 0-2; J McNaughton 0-2; E Campbell 0-1; R McGarry 0-1; Domhnall Nugent 0-1; D McMullan 0-1

Meath: Charlie Ennis; Sean Geraghty, Shane Brennan, Michael Burke; Shane Whitty, Darren Kelly, Ben McGowan; Alan Douglas, Padraic O’Hanrahan; James Kelly, Stephen Morris, Daithi McGowan, Patrick Potterton, Keith Keoghan, Jack Walsh

Subs: Patrick Conneely for S Geraghty (29); Damien Healy for J Walsh (47); Jack McGowan for S Morris (51); Nicholas Potterton for P O’Hanrahan (65);  Eamon O’Donnchadha for K Keoghan (65)

Scorers:  J Kelly 1-1; S Morris 1-00; D Healy 1-00 (1-00 f); A Douglas 0-2; P O’Hanrahan 0-2 (2f); P Potterton 0-1; K Keoghan 0-1; J Walsh 0-1; Darren Kelly 0-1 (1f); Daithi McGowan 0-1

Referee: David Hughes (Carlow)

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