NFL Div.4 Round Up
By Paddy McIlwaine
If success and the glory that comes with it were the motivation for following your team then Antrim football fans would have been disappointed over recent years so when it does come it is great to be there to embrace that success.
This year Antrim finally gained promotion from division 4 of the NFL under new manager, Enda McGinley and with my brother John I was privileged to be in Dungarven to see the Saffrons outplay Waterford in the division 4 league final back in June.
Covid once again raised its head and forced the powers that be to opt for a reduced league programme with Antrim drawn away to Mickey Harte’s Louth in a difficult opener before taking on Sligo and Leitrim at Corrigan in a group that allowed no margin for error.
St. Geraldine’s GAC in Haggardstown provided the venue for Antrim’s opener against the ‘Wee County’ as McGinley pitted his wits against his former mentor Harte, though the new Saffron supremo insisted that this was not about the managers but about the players.
It looked a difficult opener and so it proved to be but a piece of Ryan Murray magic sealed it for the Saffrons on day one of the campaign.
Allianz National Football League
Louth v Antrim
Div. 4 North
This is a game that Antrim’s Ryan Murray won’t forget in a hurry but while he will rightly be annoyed by his sin-binning in the 28th minute of the first half and his sending off following a yellow late in the game it was the time that he was on the field that mattered and the Lamh Dhearg man certainly made his presence felt as Enda McGinley’s side opened their National League campaign with a win over Louth in Haggardstown.
Murray hit two early points, his second tying the contest after seven minutes and a Dermot McAleese goal had the Saffrons four ahead but a somewhat soft penalty award converted by Sam Mulroy and a second goal from play by Sean Murray saw the home side lead by 2-5 to 1-6 at the short whistle.
Murray returned from his sin-bin to convert a couple of frees and give his side a one point lead and in a great end to end contest he struck again in the 57th minute and again in injury time with the sides level to give a battling Antrim a deserved win and a massive psychological boost going into their next game against Sligo at Corrigan Park.
Antrim had got off to a great start to their league campaign in Haggardstown and they then welcomed Sligo to Corrigan Park in round 2 knowing they needed another win to keep their promotion hopes alive.
NFL Division 4
Antrim v Sligo
For those of us who were fortunate enough to have been at Corrigan Park for the Antrim v Louth Division 4 North game the experience was something of a roller coaster ride.
The game and some of the refereeing decisions saw Antrim supporters (and probably Sligo supporters) go through the ups and downs of the rollercoaster and when referee Conor Dourneen from Cavan blew the full-time whistle it was as much with relief as elation that we greeted the long blast.
I rarely remember a game with so many twists and turns. The Saffron’s conceded three penalties, were four down playing into a second half wind and came back to take the lead through a Eunan Walsh goal with time almost up and then conceded the third of their penalties.
Their refusal to bend the knee when everything seemed to be going against them and that remarkable comeback when trailing by four points into the breeze suggested that Antrim were going in the right direction under their new management and they had now qualified for the league semi-final with one round of games still to play.
Leitrim were Antrim’s final opponent in the group stages and the Saffron’s continued to do things the hard way before overcoming the spirited Connaught side.
Allianz National Football League Division Four North
Antrim 2-17-1-19 Leitrim
Antrim topped the Division Four North section of the Allianz National Football League with a slender 2-17-1-19 win over Leitrim – but were perhaps fortunate after seeing an eleven-point second half lead wilt on a blazing hot afternoon in Corrigan Park.
The Saffrons were in control through Conor Stewart’s first half goal and Conor Murray added a second after the break.
But Leitrim substitute Evan Sweeney landed three points on the spin and then found the net to give his side renewed hope.
Terry Hyland’s side would restore parity twice late-on and it took the trusted boots of veterans Paddy Cunningham and Tomas McCann to seal a late win for the hosts, and in the process protect their winning League run.
This win saw Antrim top their group with full points from three games and set up a meeting with Waterford who finished top of a group containing only three sides with Carlow and Wexford making up the group
And so it was on to Dungarven for a league final against the Deise, the Munster minnows were awarded home advantage by virtue of the fact that Antrim had played two home games in their qualifying group.
Antrim completed their division 4 campaign with a convincing win over Waterford at Faher’s Field in Dungarven.
As the adrenalin rush at the full time whistle faded into aching bones and tired eyes on the journey home from Fraher’s Field in Dungarven, my mind raced for a time on what I had witnessed a few hours earlier.
The Saffron Gael were privileged to watch and record for posterity Antrim footballer’s victory over Waterford in a division 4 game which would ultimately mean we would be playing our football in division 3 next year.
A Conor Eastwood goal late in the game settled jangling Antrim nerves and certainly settled mine even though it never looked likely that the result would end any other way. Antrim had dominated from throw in to final whistle but missed at least four goal chances to settle the issue much earlier.
They led 0-6 to 0-00 and then 0-8 to 0-1 during the opening half that they largely controlled but a late rally from Waterford left the score at 0-8 to 0-4 at the break. It was like that for a good deal of the second half with Waterford battling to get back into it but never quite threatening a turn around with the Antrim defence competently doing their job.
As Waterford keeper Paudie Hunt pulled off two superb second half saves to deny Antrim the goal that their overall play deserved I decided, stool and camera in hand, to make my way to the other end of the field.
Surely with all the goal chances we had created one would come and like all photographers I wanted to capture the shot that would have everyone talking in awe. These shots don’t come very often but to be fair, Curly captures quite a number more of them than me.
As fate would have it, it arrived but when Odhran Eastwood got on the end of a great movement I was too busy out there kicking every ball to compose myself and my photograph of what turned out to be the winning goal was a lot less spectacular than the goal itself.
I got the next best thing, as you can see in the featured photograph at the top of the article, Odhran Eastwood’s celebration. It sums up everything about the day, Eastwood’s jubilation which was being reciprocated by the Antrim fans lucky enough to be there and the despair on Waterford pair, Hunt and Kiely who knew the game was finally over. So its division 3 football in 2022 and this punter is certainly looking forward to it and I believe Antrim can hold their own in the higher grade and, who knows, given a good start could be vying for another promotion come season’s end.