Allianz Hurling League Division One – Relegation Play Off
Antrim 2-24 Offaly 2-17
Saturday March 26 @ Pairc Tailteann, Nvan
Relief, elation, euphoria, job done. A mix of emotions at the full time whistle in Pairc Tailteann as Antrim secured their Division One status for 2023 with a bit to spare. Seven points seperated the sides at the end, but in truth it could and should have been double that amount as the Saffron’s dominated for 95% of the game. Leading by five at half time Offaly fought back to level early in the second half. When second half subtitute Niall O’Connor was black carded early in the new half there was a few worried looking faces among the Antrim fans, but they back brilliantly and were ten to the good deep in injury time, only for Offaly to grab a late goal consolation goal
It was the performance Darren Gleeson and his backroom needed to get the result the county yearned and the Saffrons delivered in spades. 10 points the difference and a score line that maybe flattered the Faithful County by the end of the 70 minutes. Conal Cunning top scoring with nine of his 10 points coming from frees as he took over that responsibility from the injured Neil McManus while Ciaran Clarke looked back to his best with 0-4 to his name. James McNaughton and Keelan Molloy with the other majors for the Saffrons as they reaped the rewards of their fast attacking play under the Navan sun.
Antrim looked like they could score goals at will in the opening half with McNaughton’s 4th minute major settling any nerves in the Saffron camp. Offaly relied on scores from distance with Eoghan Cahill and Jason Sampson the main protagonists and going into the final couple of minutes of the first half, the sides were tied on 1-9 to 0-12.
Antrim finished the half with a saffron coloured flourish however with Clarke and Molloy raising the white flag before Domhnall Nugent and Conal Cunning combined to release Molloy for the Saffrons second major of the game with what was the last action of the opening half.
Offaly rallied at the start of the second half with 1-2 in the opening seven minutes. The Saffrons were reduced to 14 men with Niall O’Connor black carded in an incident that saw Cahill score from a penalty but Antrim regrouped to control the second half.
Defensively they had Offaly’s number with the half back line resolute and helping to create pressure up front by forcing turn overs.
Antrim outscored Offaly five points to one in a 10 minute period that effectively saw them build an unassailable lead. Huge frees from McNaughton (from well inside his own half) and Cunning, while Joe Maskey could have easily found the back of the net with his drive in that same period of time and Conor McCann’s 53rd minute point under the old stand at Pairc Tailteann was worthy to grace any pitch in the country.
Cahill’s accuracy from placed ball kept the Faithful County’s hopes alive but another four unanswered points and a brilliant save from Corcoran to deny Cunning a major put Antrim eight ahead with as many minutes remaining on the clock.
Offaly were reduced to 14 men for the last five minutes with Joey Keenaghan receiving a second yellow card and the Saffrons extended their lead to 11 points with Eoin O’Neill and Cunning (two). Antrim’s numerical advantage was gone when O’Connor was sent off in injury time and while Antrim looked home and dry, Offaly and Cahill kept them on edge in injury time. The Offaly talisman firing to the back of the net from a 21 yard free with a vicious drive to beat Ryan Elliott in the Antrim goals.
Antrim responded with Seaan Elliott winning a penalty, Eimhin Kelly black carded for his challenge and while Clarke found the back of the net, he was adjudged to have crossed the 21 before striking and his major was disallowed.
It mattered little however in what was the last action of the game. A third year at the top table of hurling beckons for the Saffrons while Darren Gleeson and his backroom team will turn their attention to another assault on the Joe McDonagh Cup.
Antrim: Ryan Elliott; David Kearney, Gerard Walsh, Stephen Rooney; Paddy Burke, Eoghan Campbell, Joe Maskey; Keelan Molloy, Ryan McGarry; James McNaughton, Domhnall Nugent, Conal Cunning; Conor Johnston, Conor McCann, Ciaran Clarke
Scorers: C Cunning 0-10 (9f); C Clarke 0-4; J McNaughton 1-2 (1f 1’65); K Molloy 1-2; E Campbell 0-2; G Walsh 0-1; J Maskey 0-1; C McCann 0-1; E O’Neill 0-1
Offaly: Stephen Corcoran; Jack Screeney, Ben Conneely, Joey Keenaghan; Leon Fox, David King, Killian Sampson; Adrian Cleary, David Nally; Brian Duignan, Jason Sampson, John Murphy; Liam Langton, Eoghan Cahill, Luke O’Connor
Scorers: E Cahill 2-7 (1-4f; 1 ’65); J Sampson 0-3; L O’Connor 0-2; S Corcoran 0-1 (1f); D King 0-1; D Nally 0-1; J Murphy 0-1; P Clancy 0-1