In ended in bitter dissapointment but a word of thanks to the Antrim fans who travelled to Croke Park to cheer on the Saffrons in the Christy Ring final. Hope to see you all in Clones next Sunday for the Antrim v Derry MFC semi final
Christy Ring Cup final @ Croke Park
Antrim 4-15 Carlow 5-23
By Brendan McTaggart
Leading up to Saturday’s Final, it felt like everything was finally falling into line for the Saffrons. Promotion and league winners, back to Division 1B and the Liam McCarthy Cup for 2018, just the Christy Ring Cup to attain and Antrim would accomplish the complete season and everything in the City and the Glens will be rosy.
It felt like we had entered the apex of that corner, the corner that would lead to the changing of fortunes for Antrim hurling. Woody, Sambo, Pappy and Neal Peden were orchestrating the perfect tune with Croke Park to play host to their masterpiece. Unfortunately for the Saffrons management, players and fans alike, the Antrim crescendo was unceremoniously destructed by a tidal wave of red, gold and green – no Boy George of Carlow-Chameleon pun required. The Barrowside symphony derailed the Saffron dreams at Headquarters with James Doyle the man primarily responsible for further Christy Ring heartbreak for Antrim. The St Mullins man finished the final with a personal tally of four goals and one point in a breath taking display to break Saffron hearts. Doyle was ably assisted by Denis Murphy who was metronomic from placed ball, 11 efforts at target, 11 white flags raised. Perfection.
In a flawless first half, everything Carlow touched turned to gold and it was the complete 70 minute performance from the Barrowsiders that Antrim have been striving towards. So many times in the last 13 to 14 months, joint manager Dominic McKinley had been frustrated by Antrim’s inability to perform for the full 70 minutes but always felt that his team were capable of achieving that goal. The Saffrons have shown a steely resolve this season and in the three previous outings against Carlow that showed the green shoots of improvement had finally sprung. On Saturday they took their eye off the ball for a ten minute period in the first half and it was all the invitation the Barrowsiders needed. They scored 3-6 in the final ten minutes of the first half, Doyle with a hat trick while Antrim mustered 1-1 in reply, Eoghan Campbell with the last touch to get the sliotar over the line. Three brilliant goals and nothing Chrissy O’Connell could do with them. Indeed were it not for the bravery and brilliance of the Loughgiel man in the opening minutes at Croke Park it could have been much worse for the Saffrons. O’Connell, as he has done on countless occasions this season, pulled off a top class save from point blank range and recovered to repeat the fete seconds later. Was that an early sign of things to come? It didn’t feel like it at that time. Antrim, although slow in starting, did hurl well in the opening quarter and took the lead on a couple of occasions. Arron Graffin with his first start in two years for Antrim was having a great game with club mate Paddy Burke and Captain Simon McCrory also leading the way before the wheels came off thanks to the Barrowsiders wrecking machine that is James Doyle.
James Doyle’s four goals, three of them in the last ten minutes of the opening half, desroyed Antrim’s Christy Ring chances.
11 points separated the sides at the short whistle and it was going to take a monumental performance from Antrim to drag themselves back into the game. They regained their mojo and gave Carlow their all after the restart but unfortunately for Antrim, Carlow were in no mood to capitulate. Antrim threw everything they had, including the proverbial sink in the second half and Carlow returned it with interest. The second half was a fascinating face-off between two gladiators giving everything in their arsenal to gain an upper-hand. Antrim introduced Daniel McKernan at half time and he along with fellow Sarsfields man Niall McKenna had a major influence on the second half. McKenna was introduced during the first half and showed glimpses of the brilliance he produced at the same stage just 12 months ago against Meath, twice. Ciaran Clarke scored the first of two second half goals after just four minutes of the second half to renew the Saffron charge and breathe fresh impetus into the game but another Carlow major just five minutes later all but extinguished any hopes of a Lazarus like recovery. Captain Martin McKavanagh this time with the finish, adding to the two points he had already registered at the start of the second half.
Antrim continued to show the renewed belief instilled this season with Matthew Donnelly performing well when introduced into the Saffrons defence and a Neil McManus goal from a 21 yard free kept the Saffron faithful dreaming. When Clarke scored his second major shortly after, the Carlow lead was reduced to eight points with still 14 minutes remaining. Game on and the Antrim support began to believe once more only for Colm Bonnar’s men to hammer the final nail in the Saffron Christy Ring coffin. Doyle with his fourth goal of the match along with four Barrowide points in the space of ten minutes was replied to by a solitary white flag from a Clarke free. Game over. Three Saffron points unanswered was a case of too little too late for Antrim before Eoghan Campbell’s game was cut short for a dangerous tackle on substitute Seán Whelan. A red card brought from pure frustration more than anything but it spelled the end of the Saffron challenge. A free from Carlow Captain Kavanagh on the stroke of full time gave the Barrowsiders an 11 point victory and Christy Ring back to Carlow for the third time and ending an eight year absence.
Chrissy O’Connell; Simon McCrory; John Dillon; Stephen Rooney; Ciaran Johnston; Paddy Burke; Arron Graffin; Conor McKinely (0-1); Paul Shiels (0-1); Neal McAuley; Conor McCann; Eoghan Campbell (1-00); Conor Johnston; Neil McManus (1-2, 1-1 free); Ciaran Clarke (2-9, 7 frees, 1 ’65)
Subs: Niall McKenna for N McAuley (26 mins); Daniel McKernan (0-1) for C McCann; Paddy McGill (0-1) for P Shiels (48 mins); Matthew Donnelly for J Dillon (50 mins); Conal Cunning for Conor Johnston (67 mins)
James O’Carroll; Alan Corcoran; Paul Doyle; Gary Bennett; Richard Coady; David English; Richard Kelly (0-1); Jack Kavanagh; Diarmuid Byrne (0-3); John Michael Nolan (0-2); Martin Kavanagh 1-3, 1 free); James Doyle (4-1); Denis Murphy (0-11, 11 frees) Eddie Byrne; Paul Coady (0-1)
Subs: Kevin McDonald for J Kavanagh (43 mins); Chris Nolan (0-1) for P Coady (46 mins); Seamus Murphy for D Byrne (58 mins); Jack Murphy for D Murphy (68 mins); Seán Whelan for J Doyle (inj)
Ref: Mick Murtagh (Westmeath)
Christy Ring Cup final preview
Antrim 5-13 Carlow 1-7
I doubt if it will be like this on Saturday but it was mainly one way traffic when Antrim beat Carlow in the Christy Ring final in 2006, the Saffrons running out winners by 5-13 to 0-1. The men from the Glens were rampant during a very one sided first half and were actually 3-6 to 0-0 ahead before Carlow opened their account in the 27th minute, the goals coming from Joey Scullion, Johnny McIntosh and Kieran ‘Pinky, Kelly.
Leading 3-8 to 0-2 at half time Antrim took their foot off the pedal in the second half, but they did add two further goals from Brian McFall and Johnny McIntosh to run out winners by eighteen points. I think most Saffron fans would settle for winning by just one of those eighteen points on Saturday.
There was a bizarre incident early in the second half of the ’06 final when a Carlow fan ran onto the field and was chased, and promptly caught, by match referee James McGrath who showed a real turn of pace as he apprehended the intruder.
Aaron Graffin, who has not worn an Antrim jersey since suffering a cruciate ligament injury against Westmeath in May 2015 makes his return to the Saffron shirt against Carlow in tomorrow’s Christy Ring final at Croke Park.
The team is along expected lines but Graffin’s inclusion being the big talking point while Dunloy teenager Conal Cunning had been added to the list of subs
By John McIlwaine
Neil McManus was out working in the garden of his new home in Cushendall when a voice from behind says “ Hi boy you better take it easy, you have a big match coming up next weekend”. Neil turned to find behind him none other than Hollywood superstar Liam Neeson, who had been spending a couple of days in the seaside village. Big Liam went on to chat about the game of hurling and told the Antrim star that he had hurled a bit himself in this time at St Patrick’s College in Ballymena in the1960s where he won the North Antrim Vocational Schools title in 1966.
“I was totally dumbstruck to be honest” was Neil’s reaction, “I couldn’t believe just how down to earth the man was. I was buzzing about meeting such a big star so I went in the house and got one of my Antrim jerseys and presented it to him”
The news of Liam playing for St Patrick’s is something I was well aware of as I was a member of that very team in 1966. To be honest I wasn’t very good and in truth I don’t really remember whether Liam was either as the stars of that team were the boys from the hurling clubs like PJ O’Mullan, the late Barry Mullholland and Denis Burns from Loughgiel and Kieran Dempsey from Cushendall. The team was made up of players from areas which at that time had no hurling at all like Ballymena, Glenravel and Ahoghill, but some of the players from there like Ahoghill’s Raymond Quinn and Ballymena’s Tony McAvoy (better known for his boxing prowess) and ‘tough as teak’ Pat Jordan were natural athletes and took to the game like ducks to water. We played our home games on the newly laid All Weather pitch at St Patrick’s, which I might add was nothing like the lush grass-like 4G surfaces of today. This one was as hard as the road with a sprinkling of quarry dust on top to cushion the blow and if you went down on it your bore the scars for weeks afterwards. Our team manger Dominic O’Loan, who that season guided Glenravel to their one and only Senior Football Championship title, knew that once we got used to the surface it would be a big advantage to us, and so it proved. We beat Our Lady of Lourdes, Ballymoney in the final, for which we had home advantage for some strange reason, and while they had a lot of players from the hurling strongholds of Loughgiel and Dunloy in their ranks, they could not adapt to playing on our pitch, having played all their hurling on grass. Dominic had us working on ground hurling and on a surface like that the ball flew along. I can’t remember the actual score of the game but I’m almost sure we score more goals than points in that final.
When Liam was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Ballymena back in November 2012 I was there photographing the event for the Ballymena Times. During a quiet moment when Liam was in the Parlour with Mayor of Ballymena Ald PJ McAvoy (older brother of the aforementioned Tony McAvoy) I got the chance to present him with a copy of the team photo from that final, and got him to sign a couple of others as well. There are a good few players in the photograph whose names I still struggle to remember, but I was amazed when the big man rattled them all off.
The Hollywood legend is a regular visitor to this part of the world and comes back to see family and friends when his busy schedule allows. He loves his native Ballymena, the Glens of Antrim and his county, so who knows he may well pop up in Croker on Saturday to cheer on the men in Saffron.
You know something…he might even be wearing McManus’s jersey!