Poor start scuppers Saffrons hopes

All-Ireland Hurling Championship Preliminary Round

Saturday July 10

Antrim 2-21 Laois 2-27

Brendan McTaggart reports Parnell Park, Dublin

Antrim’s Liam McCarthy dream ended on Saturday afternoon as Laois condemned the Saffrons to a six point defeat and a return to the McDonagh Cup.

On an afternoon that offered promise and hope, the Saffrons were stung by a rejuvenated Laois side who were outstanding throughout.  From the first whistle they played with fire, intensity and vigour, leaving Antrim in their wake for the majority of the opening 35 minutes.

Fresh hope for Antrim as Eoin O’Neill drills the ball underneath Laois goalkeer Enda Rowlan for the second of his two goals.

It was a first half to forget for Antrim where nothing really went to plan.  They didn’t play with any fluency with the usual zip in their passes missing with quality ball into the forward missing coupled with some unforgiving errors that Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett’s side were more than happy to punish.  Paddy Purcell’s rasping 34th minute goal punctuating what was close to the perfect half for Laois. 

The Saffrons performed much better after the restart and with majors coming from substitute Eoin O’Neill they got themselves back in the game.  The O’Moore County were down to 13 men after the sending off of Ross King and full back Sean Downey sin binned in the second half but Antrim couldn’t capitalise.  The inopportune timing of the second water break, some astute tactics from Laois and missed chances from the Saffrons.  Namely a missed penalty and while the Saffrons trailed by just two mid-way through the second half, Paddy Purcell’s second major of the game gave Laois a stranglehold with Antrim denied time and again by the outstanding Enda Rowland.  The Laois goalkeeper proving once again why he is one of the best shot stoppers in the country with a number of saves from the top drawer.

Antrim’s James McNaughton breaks through the Laois defence, but his shot was saved by Enda Rowlan in the Laois goal.

“We had enough chances to win a couple of games.”  Antrim manager Darren Gleeson lamented after the game before continuing: “I don’t know how many goal scoring opportunities or whatever, we would have to pull the stats out for that one.”

Leaving a ten point deficit to overhaul in the second half was always going to be a huge ask and Gleeson paid tribute to the Antrim’s opponents before assessing the game further: “Laois were very competitive All-Ireland quarter-finalists two years ago.  That day they were unlucky, they’re a good team.  They have a lot of good club teams in the county as well.  We talk about the club competition in Antrim, it takes a good team to win a Laois county championship as well I’ll tell you that.  They’re a proud hurling county and applied themselves well in the first half with some really dynamic hurling and we couldn’t live with it through Laois’ good work and our own poor application.

“We showed a bit of inexperience in the first half.  We were very relaxed and laid back about it and lack of tracking and lack of application.

“In the second half we got into it a bit.  After 17 or 18 minutes we were on the front foot and the water break came and killed our momentum.  Laois were cute enough how they went about it, it’s hard to summarise it.”

The introduction of O’Neill and Joe Maskey at half time allowed Antrim to move Eoghan Campbell into midfield.  The Saffrons had more solidity and threat after the restart but Gleeson was in no mood to look for silver linings: “A couple of people came in and really applied themselves but you can’t make the basic errors we made at this level.  There’s no point in sugar coating it, there were three or four horrendous basic errors made and that’s where games are won and lost.

“We’re not searching for solace.  We’re searching to be a top team and to compete against the top teams.  That didn’t happen.”

Eoghan Campbell in action against Laois left half forward Ciaran Collier

A return to the Joe McDonagh Cup after one year in the Liam McCarthy is the harsh reality of Saturday’s result.  Gleeson rued the Saffrons luck with the current structure before calling for a change to develop hurling in other counties: “In normal circumstances you got the five games in Leinster like a group but Covid has taken that away.  The two games, we were blown away the last day and found our feet too late in that game as well.  You need so much practice against the top teams.  You think you can go down and play a challenge match against these teams and things like that, you’re playing against second and third string in challenge matches.  The only way that teams like Antrim, Laois, Carlow and Westmeath are going to improve is playing against the top teams consistently.  How we go about that structure, I don’t know.”  Gleeson continued: “It’s a process.  A two, three or four year process.  You think about it, it’s not that long ago that Wexford were hanging in there by their coat tails in Division One hurling.  They got time to settle and their team to grow and look where they’re at now.  They’re one of the best teams in the country.”

Seaan Elliott who played when he came on in the second half.

In 2022, the Saffrons will have the unusual setting on Division One league hurling and McDonagh Cup championship.  Gleeson said it won’t be a comfortable season by any stretch of the imagination: “We’ll have that next year in the normal structure of February, March and some of April and then we’re into the absolute dog fight.  You seen the way the Joe McDonagh was structured this year, you lose a match and you’re out.  Last year was five games, this year it’s only two.”

It wasn’t the ending to the season many Saffron fans had hoped for.  It wasn’t the ending to the season the players clearly wanted either.  Dejected leaving Parnell Park, the memories of a victory over Clare and draw against Wexford in Corrigan Park seemed like a distant memory.  The Antrim manager said that for the better days to remain for the Saffrons, further changes are required within the county: “There are positive parts (to the season) but you need to be in the Liam McCarthy and the top Division.  That was the goal.  There’s no such thing as trying to be optimistic about it. If Antrim hurling is to drive forward whether that’s with the team I’ve put together or someone else, they need to improve the structures drastically.”

Laois midfielder Jack Kelly in action


Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Damon McMullan, Gerard Walsh, Stephen Rooney; Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke, Aodhan O’Brien; Keelan Molloy, Ciaran Johnston; Neil McManus, Michael Bradley, James McNaughton; Conor Johnston, Conal Cunning, Ciaran Clarke

Subs: Aaron Crawford for D McMullan (18); Eoin O’Neill for M Bradley (HT); Joe Maskey for Ciaran Johnston (HT); Seaan Elliott for Conor Johnston (59); Matthew Donnelly for A O’Brien (70)

Scorers: C Clarke 0-8 (7f 1’65); E O’Neill 2-00; N McManus 0-4; K Molloy 0-3; J McNaughton 0-2 (1f); C Cunning 0-2; Conor Johnston 0-1; Seaan Elliott 0-1

Laois: Enda Rowland; Lee Cleere, Sean Downey, Donnchadh Hartnett; Podge Delaney, Ciaran McEvoy, Ryan Mullaney; Fiachra Fennell, Jack Kelly; Paddy Purcell, Charles Dwyer, Ciaran Collier; PJ Scully, Willie Dunphy, Ross King

Subs: James Ryan for R Mullaney (53); Eanna Lyons for C Collier (57); James Keyes for P Purcell (65); Aaron Dunphy for W Dunphy (inj); Ciaran Comerford for C Dwyer (inj)

Scorers: PJ Scully 0-10 (7f); P Purcell 2-2; P Delaney 0-3; J Kelly 0-3; W Dunphy 0-3; R King 0-2; C McEvoy 0-1; F Fennell 0-1; C Dwyer 0-1; C Collier 0-1

Referee: Sean Cleere (Kilkenny)

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