Saffron Gael scribe Brendan McTaggart looks back on 2018

2018 in matches….


By Brendan McTaggart


A season that began on the Shaw’s Road and finished in Abbotstown. I’ve tried to count the games but after four attempts I’ve come up with different numbers, so I’ll leave it at a ‘plethora’ of matches. A year that has seen me travel to Clare, Galway, Laois and Dublin to name a few along with the length and breadth of the county. Here’s a run-down of my journalistic year with a few of the highlights thrown in for good measure.


Enniskillen Gaels Matthew Dixon keeps his eye on the ball despite getting in a tangle with Ballinascreen’s Christopher Logan in the final of the St Paul’s tournament on New Year’s Day


The first match of the year while most people were laying with a hangover or reaching for second helpings of Turkey. New Year’s Day and the Shaw’s Road for the final of the St Pauls minor football Ulster cup for the Derry Post with Enniskillen Gaels defeating Ballinascreen in the final. A trip to Armagh for the Saffrons against Tyrone in the McKenna Cup later in the week then Parnell Park for Antrim’s Walsh Cup match against the Dubs on the Saturday.

Antrim centre back Matthew Donnelly plucks a high ball out of the air during his team’s opening league battle with All Ireland champions Galway in Salthill. For over sixty minutes the Saffrons looked set to cause and upset until a later Galway flourish send them home empty handed. Pic by John McIlwaine

The undoubted highlight of January and one of my highlights of the year came on 28th January and Antrim’s opening match on their return to Division 1b. No one gave them a prayer of getting anything from a match against reining All-Ireland champions with Galway priced at 1/100 for the win. Glorious failure it might have been but its been a long time since I felt such pride and joy to be an Antrim fan. Hearing the press box of the Salthill Stadium go very quiet then a collective sigh of relief from the Galway journo’s at the end was quite amusing….if only we had held on for a famous win.

Eamon O’Colm (15) watches as his shot beats Lavey goalkeeper Eoin Mulholland for Gaoth Dobhair’s opening goal in the Paddy McLaron U21 final in Creggan. Pic by Paddy McIlwaine


Most of February was devoted to Creggan and the superbly run Paddy McLarnon U21 tournament where Lavey dared to dream and Gaoth Dobhair fine-tuned their skills and started a ground-breaking year. A trip to a cold Portlaoise was a highlight – albeit another losing journey but reporting on Antrim under the floodlights in an old venue like that of O’Moore Park was something different.

It’s a long, long way from Clare to here!
Creagh Concrete’s James McNaughton in action against Atlantic Aviation of Clare in the Inter Firms All Ireland Final on a rainy Friday night in Sixmilebridge. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine


March brought something different. A trip into the unknown and a chance to find out just how long it is from Clare to here. A day trip to Sixmilebridge with Creagh in search of an All-Ireland but came home empty handed with Atlantic Aviation/Molex taking the honours. Another unhappy journey but another memorable one nevertheless.
I’m starting to see a pattern here – at this rate of going a few lads will be wanting me to sit my ground in 2019!
A playoff defeat to Laois, again, saw Antrim relegated to Division 2a for this coming season. A short lived stay in 1a but a memorable one all the same. Near misses against Galway, Dublin and Laois with the match in Dunloy definitely the one that got away. The league’s got underway in March with a trip to Ballycastle for the McQuillan’s facing Naomh Éanna my first outing of the year – the first step for the Town’s route to Division 1 for the coming year. A Dunloy victory over Loughgiel in a cold and rainy Fr Healy Park started April off perfectly…..although the Shamrocks would ultimately have the final say over the Cuchullains at the business end of the year. Further club matches involving Rasharkin, St Pauls, Portglenone, Aghagallon, St John’s and Lámh Dhearg and it was good to have the league up and running again. Before they would have to stop. A story for another day.

Oooopppss! Nigel Elliott holds his head, as does his cousin Ryan in the Antrim goal, after the Dunloy flyer ran the wrong way after winning the ball from the throw-in at the start of the Meath v Antrim McDonagh Cup opener in Navan. The Antrim midfielder put the ball inches wide of his own posts which in the end cost his team a score as Carlow sent over the resultant 65, but Nigel bounced back to hit a hat-trick of goal at the right end in a man of the match display. Pic by John McIlwaine

May and the Joe McDonagh Cup. A trip to Meath and I wasn’t the only one who travelled to Navan with more than a hint of trepidation. Nigel Elliott almost scoring an ‘own point’ in the opening second did little to help the feeling but in a strange sort of way, it turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Elliott’s performance that day is something that will live long – from ‘dear jaysus’ to ‘h’on the lad ye’ in the space of 70 minutes. 3-2 for Elliott and a winning start to the inaugural McDonagh Cup. Life was good.

Antrim captain Neil McManus celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal in a memorable McDonagh Cup win over Carlow at Corrigan Park, but it was a bad injury that the Ruairi Og man received in a cowardly off the ball incident at was the main talking point when the dust settled. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

A week later brought the Battle of Whiterock. Antrim may have won that battle but Carlow would end up winning the war. Four red cards and a 50 minute second half in sweltering heat and Antrim were two from two. Someone pinch me. This was unchartered territory while covering Antrim and I got to a stage where I was beginning to dream of a day in Croker once again. The Laois happened again. Third time in 2018 Antrim would face the O’Moore County and they were pipped at the post in Dunloy. Two from two became two from three but the dream was still there.
A few club matches were thrown in with Cushendall against Dunloy and matches involving Rasharkin and Rossa also covered. The month finished with an Ulster championship defeat for the Antrim footballers to Down in Páirc Elser although the U20’s performance against the Mourne County in the curtain raiser was a highlight. A hugely entertaining game with the young Saffrons unlucky not to come away with a win.
June began with a trip to TEG Cusack Park and Westmeath in the McDonagh Cup. Another luckless performance where the Saffrons mounted a savage comeback but came up short. Dubious decisions seemed to be mounting against the county hurlers and a hair line square ball decision to rob Conor McCann of a goal in the second half did little to help the Antrim management team – Sambo with the quote of the year: “What the f**k do we have to do to get a break out there.”

Antrim joint manager Terence McNaughton was bemoaning his team’s luck after defeat by Westmeath in Mullingar. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

Our fate in the McDonagh Cup wasn’t in our own hands but we needed a victory over Kerry in Cushendall before looking at Westmeath’s match against Carlow. Neither went in Antrim’s favour and from the possibility of reaching the McDonagh Cup Final, Antrim now faced a relegation play-off such was the nature of a hugely competitive tournament.
The club leagues took over once again and Loughgiel’s annual McGarry Cup tournament saw Thurles Sarsfields and Ballyboden St Enda’s travel with the hosts inviting Dunloy as well. The ‘old firm’ doubled up their league match as a semi-final with Dunloy edging the Shamrocks in a close encounter and the Cuchullains defeating the Dublin champions in a hugely entertaining match in Fr Healy Park. A match that had everything and an exhibition fitting for the occasion.

Dunloy’s Keelan Molloy in action against Ballyboden St Enda’s in a splendid final of the Liam McGarry Cup tournament in Loughgiel. Pic by John McIlwaine

Club games involving Portglenone and Glenavy, Dunloy and Aldergrove with the U21 hurling championship getting underway – the club scene was once again back in full swing. June ended with Antrim retaining their McDonagh Cup status with a comfortable win over Kildare in the Athletic Grounds. A match neither felt should have been played with Antrim in a no win situation but it was job done and the end of the county season for another year.
July and my first taste of Cushendall vs Loughgiel. The Shamrocks coming out on top but the Ruairi’s would have the final say over their rivalry taking Feis honours two weeks later in Slemish Park, Ballymena. The club scene and I saw matches involving Ballygalget, Dunloy, Carey, St Paul’s and Cushendall.

Loughgiel celebrate after beating Dunloy in a cracking Senior Reserve final in Pearse Park early August. Pic by John McIlwaine

August began with Loughgiel edging the Cuchullains to take the Reserve Championship in Pearse Park before the senior championship took feet and the introduction of the new format. St John’s and Ballycastle in a preliminary round while I went to the other side of the Bann to cover some matches. Limavady, Ardmore, Sean Dolan’s and Doire Colmcille in a double header in Celtic Park. A great venue and something we are lost for within our county. A league match between Dunloy and Gort na Mona saw ‘Poggy’ McHugh scoring a late goal to keep the then feint hopes of a Gort promotion alive. A goal that would prove to be a pivotal moment for the Turf Lodge men’s season. A contender for game of the season between Creggan and St John’s along with Dunloy and Portglenone in the minor football championship. Derry championship again with Doire Colmcille and Ardmore on a Friday night before Clooney Gaels outgunned the Biddies in the Intermediate Championship and Dunloy vs Cushendall in the first round of the league format of the senior championship.

PJ O’Connell was one of the leading lights for Cloney Gaels as they swept aside the challenge of Cloughmills in the Intermediate Hurling Championship in Cushendall. Pic by John McIlwaine

A football league game for good measure between the Cuchullains and Tír na nÓg for good measure to end the month with the Randalstown men looking good for promotion at that stage.
September and Championship time again with Dunloy and Sarsfields along with Creggan and Rasharkin in a double header in Pearse Park. A dander to Drum against Drumsurn in Ballerin in the Derry Junior football championship on a Saturday night – sure what else would you be at? Junior hurling championship the following day and my first sight of Cushendun as they saw off the spirited challenge of St Pauls in the semi-final. The following weekend saw a trip to Glenavy for Con Magees versus O’Donnell’s where the Belfast side lost out in the second half on a blisteringly warm Saturday.

Ciaran Johnston showed nerves of steel as he sent over a late free to earn St John’s a second bite of the cherry against Cushendall in the SHC semi-final in Dunloy in September. Pic by John McIlwaine

The two senior hurling semi’s the end of the month was my highlight of the year. Cushendall and St John’s in an epic match in Dunloy. Late scores, more than a hint of an upset and a bit of handbags on the pitch and in the crowd. Great stuff. They would need another day. Ballycastle the following day as Cushendun finally winning the Junior hurling championship and Dunloy versus Loughgiel. The champions dethroned with Dug-out Gate delaying the start and James McNaughton ending the Cuchullains rein. Heart breaking and not one for the purists but no less dramatic in a gripping contest.
October began with a rearranged match – another late Gort goal and Turf Lodge’s finest had progressed to the semi final at the expense of perennial finalists Dunloy. Two championship defeats in the space of three days – enough to make a journo throw the pen in the fire. The game goes on.
All Saints and Gort on a Saturday in Ahoghill with a contender for goal of the season – Dermot McVeigh’s first half major helping the Gorts to the intermediate decider.

Crowded house!
Tomas McCann’s superb goal ended the hopes of a rejuvenated St Gall’s in a fantastic SFC game in Creggan in October. The goal of this, or any other season.
Pic by John McIlwaine

A few miles away Tomás McCann ended the goal of the season debate in the game of the season as a goal from the Cargin man from a 25 yard free meant the Erin’s Own side edged their great rivals from the Milltown Row, St Galls to reach the senior football decider.
Mid October and a Sunday double header where the large crowd in Páirc MacÚilin were treated to two fine contests. The minor decider between Loughgiel and Cushendall needed a replay while Cushendall and St John’s put on another epic battle. The Ruairi’s edging it but the Johnnies had reintroduced themselves at the top of Antrim hurling in an excellent year for the Corrigan Park side.
Naomh Éanna took the honours in the Intermediate Football Championship with a strong second half against a gallant Gort na Mona side but the Turf Lodge men were winners even in defeat. Forming a guard of honour for the Hightown Road side. Beaten but not bowed, a class act.
The build up to the senior football decider was always going to be special. Two neighbours with the ultimate prize on the line and not to mention bragging rights. A yarn with Cargin captain from ’74 and Packie McGuckin failed to tell me that his brother and fellow Saffron Gael scribe Geordie McGuckin laid on the winning goal on the day. Geordie has since told me Packie was ‘at his work’. Brotherly love.

McCann’s inc. The Antrim Senior Football final was not one for the
connoisseur but it was a memorable occassion as two South West neighbours contested a final for the first time. Once again hosts Ahoghill were superb in their hosting of the game. Pic by John McIlwaine

The match itself wasn’t anything to write home about. The crowd in Fr McGuigan Park was huge and the atmosphere beforehand was incredible. I thoroughly loved being involved on the day with the crowds appetite whetted by Dunloy putting on a footballing clinic to claim their second minor football crown in three years and seeing off St Galls with a bit to spare. Cargin and Creggan was a game of chess with neither giving an inch but a piece of brilliance by the Rolls Royce Michael McCann took the McNamee Cup to Toome once again.


The Gort’s hard work paid off as they capped a good season by winning promotion to Division 1 with a win over Moneglass at Enright Park. Pic by John McIlwaine

The fourth weekend in October would see me attending Gort against Moneyglass on the Saturday with the Turf Lodge men achieving the dream of promotion to division one as champions. Just reward and a rendition or two of Disco Land still echoes and raises a smile when I cast my mind back. The Sunday saw a trip to Ballycastle for the hurling finals. Dunloy would edge Loughgiel in the minor decider with Seaan Elliott scoring the winner and Cushendall overcoming Loughgiel in the senior decider – Conor Carson and Paddy Burke, yes, Paddy Burke scoring the decisive goals on the day.

Cushendall celebrate their win over Loughgiel in the Bathshack Antrim Senior Hurling Championship final at Pairc MacUílin, Ballycastle in late October. Pic by John McIlwaine


Interviews galore with Chris Kerr announcing his inter-county retirement had me working a few late shifts but equally worth it. It’s the business end of the season and the hours don’t seem quite so long.
November brought an Ulster championship journey for Cushendun where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at the final hurdle against Monaghan side Castleblayney. The ‘Blayney repeated the same against John Mitchell’s to make the All-Ireland semi-final just to prove it was no fluke on the day.

It all ended in tears for the Emmet’s in Armagh as Castleblayney came with a late burst but it could not take away from what was a great season for Cushendun which saw Chris Dornan put them back on the map. Pic John McIlwaine

Cushendall saw off the challenge of Ballycran to make the All-Ireland semi against St Thomas’ of Galway. A match where they grinded out the result but a match that will be remembered for the luckless Arron Graffin suffering another major injury to his ‘good’ knee. A lesser mortal would have hung up the hurl, Graff has his sights set on Parnell Park and the 9th February. The U21 football championship and a new league format began before the A and B championships would start while the Cuchullains made the Ulster minor hurling final only to come second to their nemeses once again, Kevin Lynch’s. The U21 championship went to the business end with the Cuchullains playing Moneyglass…..twice. The first an epic drawn game with the second just as free flowing but Dunloy having enough to make the knockout stages.

Big Joe Maskey started the year as a hurling hero for Antrim in the NHL and ended it as a footballing colossus as he powered St Enda’s to a historic win over Mullahoran in the Ulster Intermediate Football final on a cold December night in Armagh.
Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

Naomh Éanna became the cream of the Saffron county in the first weekend in December. Adding the Ulster intermediate crown to the county title with an impressive victory over Mullahoran in the Athletic Grounds. I’ve never seen Frank Fitzsimmons as happy as I did that night – thoroughly delighted for Russ and Pat Hughes. Two of the good guys within the county and deserve the credit they’ve got since…..not forgetting the Naomh Éanna players as well.
A return to St Pauls for the minor football tournament and Derry champions Bellaghy proved to be too strong for Dunloy in the preliminary round before a midweek match under the floodlights and a first match for me in Colaiste Feirste. Superb venue and facilities and a Dunloy win to reach the decider against St Brigids.
The match was cancelled from the Saturday, scheduled for the Tuesday. A trip planned to Abbotstown for Antrim against Wicklow on the Sunday only for someone to deny me the chance of watching Dunloy in the U21 final. Match moved to Sunday. Thanks for that one guys.
Abbotstown and an Antrim win in the 2019 Kehoe Cup…..in 2018. I don’t get it either. James McNaughton dazzling on the day and the journey begins once again.

The year ended for Brendan watching James McNaughton score 14 points for Antrim in Sunday’s Kehoe Cup win over Wiclkow at Abbotstown, Dublin. Pic by John McIlwaine

Antrim and Kildare hurlers issue joint statement

Ahead of Saturday’s relegation/promotion playoff between Antrim and Kildare, both panels of hurlers have come out in opposition to the format of the Joe McDonagh Cup.

Kildare, winners of last weekend’s Christy Ring Cup final, will take on Antrim for a place in next year’s Joe McDonagh Cup; with the loser of that tie fated to spend another year outside the peripheral reach of the All-Ireland series.

In a joint-letter, both panels believed it is “incumbent on us to highlight the unfairness and inconsideration surrounding this fixture in the hope that we can positively affect change for the future.”

As of the current structure, Meath, the bottom-placed team in this year’s Joe McDonagh Cup, have already been relegated. With Offaly set to make the move down from the Leinster Championship next year (with the winners of Carlow and Westmeath going in the other direction), the six-team format of 2018 will become a five-team tournament for next year’s Championship – the winners of Kildare and Antrim joining Kerry, Laois and the remaining sides mentioned.

Unsatisfied with the prospect of this “illogical” change, the hurlers of Kildare and Antrim have outlined their reasons in a point-by-point method:

 

  1. The Joe McDonagh Cup should remain at 6 teams; a request which is made in the interest of competitiveness, fair-play and equity. The McDonagh Cup has shown everyone how competitive hurling at the lower levels has become and the tier below the Liam McCarthy should encourage teams to achieve higher standards, not shut them out. This is a point which many panels have echoed throughout the year. A 5 team competition is illogical and only serves to make it more difficult for aspiring counties to compete. Antrim should remain in the competition as they did not finish bottom and Kildare should fill the relegated 6th spot.

  1. The Christy Ring Cup competition, and by consequence the Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups, have been eroded in standing for a number of years consistently since their inception. For example, the Christy Ring Final used to take place before Liam McCarthy All-Ireland Semi-Finals, which held true to the original intentions of promoting hurling in the weaker counties. This progressive principle has been lost to a point where all these competitions have been downgraded to tiers 3, 4 and 5 and run off in their entirety before the end of June. This does nothing to promote respect for these competitions and this grievance has been aired numerous times in the past.

  1. If the system of promotion/relegation matches is being discarded next year, then the time for implementation was this year’s competitions. They are unjust, unequal in advantage and unnecessarily stressful. Winning your respective competition must be the end-point and high-point of your competitive year. No further fixtures should ever be considered for any reason and automatic promotion must be the incentive. Promoted teams should be afforded the courtesy and respect of being given a pre-season to prepare for superior opposition and competition. Kildare suffered under a similar situation in 2014 and failed to win the Christy Ring for a further 3 seasons. This could have happened to any team in the competition that year. Manipulating the rules of promotion/relegation in such a fashion can and does have long term ramifications for progression.

  1. The scheduling of this fixture exemplifies a blatant disregard for the welfare of the players. Both panels acknowledge that the week turnaround, the date, the timing and the location were not fixed with the best interest of the players in mind. We call for a more transparent, communicative, flexible and equitable process to be considered when fixing matches, especially of this nature and given the circumstances of all players involved.

  1. Regardless of the result on Saturday both panels will support each other to retain the 6 team McDonagh Cup format and pursue all possible avenues to make this happen.

 

Utmost of all, the two panels of players are keen to stress that their frustrations are aired in the hope that “the GAA to listen to the concerns of the players and that increased respect is given to all participants of the great game of hurling.”

Having been repeatedly overlooked throughout much of the year thus far, the hurlers from both panels are keen ensure greater attention is paid to the Joe McDonagh Cup.

 

Antrim team to face Kerry in crucial Joe McDonagh Cup tie

Antrim v Kerry in CushendallAntrim have named their team for Saturday’s do-or-die  Joe McDonagh Cup clash with Kerry in Cushendall. Very much along the lines of last week’s team, that lost out narrowly to Westmeath, there are two changes in the starting line up with Dunloy’s Keelan Molloy, who came on last week to replace Loughgiel’s Eddie McCloskey, getting the call from the start this time out, though he is positioned at midfield this time.        Donal McKinley who came on last week to replace his Loughgiel team-mate James McNaughton is in from the start on Saturday.

Antrim could be in the final, or relegated to Christy Ring Cup

From THE 42

Joe McDonagh Cup

Westmeath have already booked their place in the final with an unblemished record from their four games. They are top on eight points and will meet either Carlow (six points) or Antrim (four points) in the final. Kerry are also on four points but even if they manage to finish level with Carlow, they will lose out on the head-to-head record.

A draw or a win for Carlow on Saturday will put them in the final. If they lose they will also reach the decider as long as Antrim do not win. A defeat for Carlow against Westmeath and a win for Antrim over Kerry will propel Antrim into the final by virtue of their head-to-head record as they previously beat Carlow.

Joe McDonagh Cup Table after Round 4Capture
At the other end, Meath are rooted to the bottom of the table with no points to their name with Laois in fifth place on two points. The two counties meet on Saturday in Navan. The bottom placed team is automatically relegated to the Christy Ring Cup next year, the team in fifth will face a relegation play-off against the Christy Ring Cup champions.

The best Meath can hope for is the relegation play-off but they must beat Laois for that to happen. Laois can still avoid the play-off if they beat Meath. They then need favours elsewhere. If they finish just on four points with Kerry, they will lose out on the head-to-head record but will benefit in that scenario if they are tied with Antrim on four points.

If all three teams finish on four points, scoring difference will come into play but Laois (-22) are in trouble there at the moment with Kerry (+6) and Antrim (+16).

Molloy’s major not enough as Antrim left cursing their luck again

Joe McDonagh Cup – Round 4

Antrim 1-20 Westmeath 2-19

Brendan McTaggart reports from TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar

As the players began to make their way out of the changing rooms in the TEG Cusack Park stand and back to the team bus, a feint murmur could be heard.  “What do we have to do to get a break in this game.”  To be fair to Sambo McNaughton, he wasn’t the only one thinking those sentiments.  Antrim suffered another heart breaking narrow defeat in Westmeath to leave the Saffrons needing a favour to make the McDonagh Cup Final.

On a blisteringly hot afternoon in the Lake County, Antrim showed their Jekyll and Hyde attributes once again through the 70 minutes.  A solid and fine start was followed by a dip.  And by dip I mean crash.  After 15 minutes Antrim were three points ahead yet by the short whistle they trailed by eight.  It’s happened this team so often, it could nearly be patented as the ‘Saffron Dip.’ Antrim just couldn’t get their game going while everything was dropping for Westmeath.  Paul Greville was sweeping for the home side and every Antrim delivery was finding the Westmeath centre half.  The delivery into the forwards during that 15 to 20 minutes was lacking but Greville and the Westmeath defence were stupendous.  Where Antrim’s interplay and passing may have been loose, Westmeath’s by and large was crisp and precise.  Incisive and productive.

gNigel Elliott seems certain to score an Antrim goal late in the first half, but the ball rebounded off the Westmeath goalkeeper. Pic by John McIlwaine

The Westmeath first goal came as a major blow to Antrim and it came moments after Antrim could have had a goal of their own.  Nigel Elliott, so deadly in recent matches, found his shot blocked.  Neil McManus pointed the rebound to give Antrim lead 0-6 to 0-3 and it was on the balance of play, a fair reflection of Antrim’s efforts.  Then Westmeath prayed on a fragile Saffron confidence.  The home side pressurised a defender into giving a stray pass and the Saffron defence was opened.  Eoin Price gathered the sliotar and headed for Ryan Elliott’s goal.  The Westmeath midfielder carried direct before getting his shot away only for Elliott to save superbly.  The sliotar fell for Ciaran Doyle and he made no mistake from point blank range.  Fourteen minutes into the game and Doyle’s major brought Westmeath level yet it was scarcely deserving such was the efforts of Antrim in those opening exchanges.

Mistakes crept in.  Uncharacteristic errors and Westmeath took over.  Antrim looked ragged and but for some last gasp defending from Eoghan Campbell, Westmeath could have had a second goal just four minutes after Doyle’s strike.  Gaps started appearing and Antrim were putting out fires everywhere.  Their main fire marshal?  John ‘Rocky’ Dillon.  Rocky by name, a rock by nature.  Like the great Diarmuid ‘The Rock’ O’Sullivan would have lead by example for Cork yesteryear, Rocky was putting in a performance for the ages.  At times he looked isolated and there were times he was definitely outnumbered but Rocky was immense.

Four points separated the sides when disaster struck for Antrim again.  At a time when they needed the half time whistle to regroup, they were dealt a hammer blow thanks to a second Westmeath goal.  Niall O’Brien collecting a long ball before leaving two Antrim defenders in his wake with a delightful turn.  His finish was expert, but there was more than a question over-carrying in his run towards Elliott’s goal.  No foul given by the match referee and Antrim faced an uphill task.  By the time the Clare official called for time on the first half, they were eight points down and facing into the abyss.  Apart from McManus, the Antrim forward unit weren’t firing and it looked like we were in for another long afternoon in the Lake County.

What this Antrim team have is character though and they never lay down.  Where there’s a chance or a glimmer of hope, they’ll never stop trying to find a way.  Like the Laois game two weeks ago, the Saffrons came out of the changing rooms for the second half rejuvenated and while they managed to keep Westmeath scoreless for the first 22 minutes, they hit enough scores to retake the lead, thanks in no small way to the impact of half time substitute Keelan Molloy.  To coin a phrase from a previous report, a ‘saffron patch.’  Desire, commitment, drive and determination were apparent in abundance as Antrim put in a hugely improved performance after the restart.  Molloy’s major coming from reading the break of the sliotar before taking on the Westmeath defence and winning.  Antrim were tackling with ferocity, playing with a purpose and suddenly Westmeath were looking shaky.  They were now looking like a team that needed a piece of inspiration in a maroon in white shirt, what they got was wave after wave of Saffron brilliance.

Allan Devine ended his team’s drought when he scored his fifth point of the match in the 57th minute, Westmeath’s first score of the second half to break the Saffron momentum and now we had a game on our hands.  Two teams going toe to toe in an arm wrestle for supremacy.  An Antrim point was quickly followed by a Westmeath equaliser as the teams traded scores before the defining moment of the match.  Conor McCann had been moved to the edge of the square from half time and was going through a mountain of work and the Creggan man thought he had bagged the Saffron’s second major in the 65th minute.  Simon McCrory, himself putting in a superhuman effort in the second half in the Antrim defence, launched a high ball that dropped short.  McCann got the deftest of touches and the Antrim bench raised as one.  The turnaround was complete and it felt like the game defining score.  Not so.  Antrim’s cheers turned to Westmeath roars as the referee called a ‘square ball’ infringement after consulting with his umpires.  A hugely contentious decision but two minutes later, the momentum swung in Antrim’s favour once again.  The home side were reduced to 14 men when Brendan Coyle received a second yellow card with four minutes remaining.  McManus fired over the resulting free to take his tally to 0-13 for the match but that was the Saffrons last score.  As the heat intensified and the game went to the death, Westmeath found another gear.  Liam Varley and Niall Mitchell fired over in the last minute of normal time before Antrim and McManus had another opportunity to draw level after a foul on substitute Daniel McCloskey.  It was a free too far for the Ruairi Og clubman though as his effort from the most acute of angles went to the left of the posts and wide.

Devine scored another contentious ’65 in injury time as Westmeath used all their gamesmanship and knowhow to see out the time that remained.  Antrim were outraged when the ref called time, not allowing for the home sides delaying tactics and once again the Saffrons were left with a bitter taste after 70 minutes of pulsating, brilliant championship hurling.

A sense of injustice with several decisions through the match but certainly a sense of another one that got away.  We’ve done the math and had the calculators out, Antrim now need a favour from Westmeath when they play Carlow next weekend.  A victory for the Lake County and an Antrim win over Kerry will see the Saffrons play Westmeath in the McDonagh Cup Final.  At the moment it is if’s, but’s and maybe’s.  For now, it’s what might have been.  Maybe we’ll get that break Sambo was talking about next weekend.  Bring on the Kingdom.

TEAMS

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Arron Graffin, John Dillon, Conor McKinley; Simon McCrory, Paddy Burke, David Kearney; James McNaughton, Eoghan Campbell; Conor McCann, Neil McManus, Nigel Elliott; Eddie McCloskey, Conor Johnston, Ciaran Clarke.

Subs: Keelan Molloy for E McCloskey (HT); Donal McKinley for J McNaughton (45); Dan McCloskey for N Elliott (69)

Yellow Cards: S McCrory (4)

Red Cards: None

Westmeath: Paddy Carroll; Shane Power, Tommy Doyle, Brendan Doyle; Liam Varley, Paul Greville, Derek McNicholas; Eoin Price, Joey Boyle; Aonghus Clarke, Robbie Greville, Niall O’Brien; Allan Devine, Niall Mitchell, Ciaran Doyle

Subs: John Gilligan for J Boyle (55); Darragh Clinton for C Doyle (60)

Yellow Cards: Brendan Doyle (39, 66); Tommy Doyle (48)

Red Cards: Brendan Doyle (66)

Scorers for Antrim: N McManus 0-13 (7 fs); K Molloy 1-00; Conor McCann 0-2; Nigel Elliott 0-1; Conor Johnston 0-1; Paddy Burke 0-1; John Dillon 0-1

Westmeath: A Devine 0-7 (3 fs, 3 ‘65’s); N O’Brien 1-2; C Doyle 1-2; N Mitchell 0-3; L Varley 0-2; P Greville 0-1; A Clarke 0-1; R Greville 0-1

Referee: Rory McGann (Clare)

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