Saffrons can’t reproduce that Tullamore spirit

Joe McDonagh Cup

Antrim 0-21 Westmeath 0-29

By John McIlwaine

Antrim’s bid for a place in the Joe McDonagh Cup final came up short in Dunloy today as the Saffrons failed to produce the heroics of last week’s win over Offaly while going down to a very good Westmeath side. The home side were flat from the start and could not reproduce the form of the previous week and it was clear from the start that Westmeath had their homework done and executed their game plan perfectly as they closed down danger man Neill McManus. They were up for the fight from the start and in a stop-start game free taker Killian Doyle gave an exhibition, ending up with 17 points to his name, eleven of them from placed balls. The free taking of McManus was also faultless with the Cushendall man accounting for the bulk of the Antrim scores with 13 points. In their previous games in the competion the Saffrons forwards scored some great goals, but this time around the never really threatened Conor Lynch in the Westmeath goal. Things went from bad to worse for Antrim in the second half as they lost both Matthew Donnelly and David Kearney to second yellow cards, but in truth there was little to suggest that either player warranted red.

Antrim had started promisingly enough and were ahead twice in the early minutes through Neill McManus frees, but Doyle had an answer on each occasion and two quick scores from the centre forward in the eight minute had the visitors 0-4 to 0-2 clear. Keelan Molly pointed for Antrim to close the gap to a single point but Westmeath were soon back in charge as Doyle popped over two more from frees. McManus kept Antrim in touch with his faultless free taking but at the first half entered its final stages the men from the Lake County got a firm grip on the game as they pulled clear to lead by six at half time. (0-9 to 0-15)

While the opening half had been short of scores from play the start of the second half heralded a different pattern and it was tit for tat for a short while. James McNaughton got in for an excellent score but the forwards could never quite get going against an excellent Westmeath defence. Two from Joey Boyle and one from Cormac Boyle in reply to two from McManus frees edged the Leinster men further ahead and it was clear Antrim would need something special to get back into the game. A long range point from a McManus free and one from play by McNaughton a minute later temporarily raised spirits as it closed the gap to six, but the momentum was soon killed again as Westmeath got two points from frees.   

Antrim’s slim chance got a lot slimmer when Matthew Donnelly was shown a second yellow card after a foul on Robbie Greville. In truth it appeared harsh and when David Kearney followed suit soon afterwards the hill they had to climb was now a mountain.

The thirteen men kept battling to the end and substitute Eoin O’Neill hit an injury time point to cut the gap back to seven but man of the match Doyle wrapped it up for the visitors with a cracking solo score to steer his team home with relative ease.

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, John Dillon, Stephen Rooney; Matthew Donnelly, Paddy Burke (0-1), Joe Maskey; David Kearney, Nicky McKeague (0-1, 0-1 “65”); Neil McManus (0-13, 0-12f, 0-1 “65”), Ryan McCambridge, Keelan Molloy (0-1); Ciaran Clarke, Nigel Elliott (0-1), James McNaughton (0-3).

Subs: Eoghan Campbell for Duffin (28), Conor Boyd for Joe Maskey (46), Daniel McCloskey for McCambridge (51), Eoin O’Neill (0-1) for Elliott (58), James O’Connell for Clarke (68).

Westmeath: Conor Lynch; Darragh Egerton, Gary Greville; Liam Varley, Aonghus Clarke, Paul Greville (0-1); Shane Clavin, John Gilligan; Cormac Boyle (0-2), Killian Doyle (0-17, 0-9f, 0-2 “65”), Joey Boyle (0-1); Robbie Greville (0-3), Derek McNicholas (0-1) Allan Devine (0-1).

Subs: Ciaran Doyle (0-2) for McNicholas (46), Darragh Clinton (0-1) for Devine (68), Shane McGovern for C Boyle (69), Conor Shaw for J Boyle (70 + 5).

Referee: Paud O’Dwyer (Carlow)

Time to get your Saff on

Antrim have one eye on Croker but Saturday brings familiar foes to Pearse Park

Joe McDonagh Cup – Round 4 – Saturday June 5 @ 2pm

Antrim v Westmeath @ Pearse Park, Dunloy

Referee: Paud O’Dwyer (Carlow)

By Brendan McTaggart

They say third times a charm, or third time lucky.  Antrim will certainly be hoping so on Saturday afternoon.  The Saffrons host Westmeath at Pearse Park as they face each other for the third time in 2019 and after the Keogh Cup and National League ties, Antrim are looking for a change in fortunes.

January 19 and after wins over Wicklow and Kildare, Antrim faced the Lake County in Abbotstown.  At that stage of the season it’s all about performances and the Saffrons did fair well on the day.  Five points up with two minutes of normal time, the match ended a draw before Westmeath won the cup on penalties.  We’ll say nothing about the penalties.

The league contest was another close affair but 11 points from James McNaughton and a Keelan Molloy goal not enough with the visitors to Corrigan Park claiming a two point win on their way to promotion.

If you factor in the match against Westmeath in last years Joe McDonagh Cup, Antrim are due a win and probably, no definitely, due a rub of the green against last years beaten McDonagh Cup finalists.  Trailing by eight points at the short whistle, Antrim put in a heroic second half performance and but for the bounce of the ball they could have taken the win.  The bounce of the ball and some peculiar refereeing decisions that left the Saffron management questioning ‘what does do we have to do to get a break.’

Antrim’s John Dillon in action against Westmeath’s Niall Mitchell during the Kehoe Cup final at Abbotstown back in January. Pic by John McIlwaine

Westmeath are a team that Antrim have struggled against in recent times but it’s always a titanic struggle.  Nothing comes easy against the Lake County and it’s the easiest prediction in the world to say Saturday will be no different.

Looking back at the performance against Offaly, the defence were immense and attack as potent as I have ever seen but the quality of ball delivered into the forwards helped the attacking unit thrive.  Nicky McKeague with pin point passes, drilled and precise.  Neil McManus dropping deeper and supplying ball with vision that comes from experience.  The drive of Mattie Donnelly and Paddy Burke, it goes unnoticed to most but the supply could not have been better.  A controlled, composed performance that was needed when Antrim needed it most.

The stakes once again can’t be higher for Neal Peden and his team on Saturday but how far they’ve come in 2019 is nothing short of incredible.  For the Keogh Cup, the Antrim selectors didn’t have much of a panel to select from.  Withdrawals, non-committals and no shows, to say the Saffrons were down to the bare bones would be an understatement.  New blood was unearthed, raw talent thrown in at the deep end and they’ve flourished.  Phelim Duffin, a gem in the corner.  Tenacious, dogged, a complete annoyance and nightmare for any forward.  The perfect traits for a man marker and he’s taken to the county game like a duck to water.  Keelan Molloy flirted with the county game last year and showed glimpses against Westmeath in Cusack Park and against Kildare in the Athletic Grounds of what was to come.  This year he’s been irresistible and his two goals last weekend superb.  James McNaughton has become an automatic starter after his performances in the league.  He didn’t fire on all cylinders in the opening matches of the McDonagh Cup but after coming on as a sub against Offaly, he gave us a reminder of his undoubted talents.  Four points from play and a display that dizzied the Faithful County’s defence.

Antrim’s Ciaran Clarke challenges Westmeath’s Killian Doyle during Sunday’s Allianz NHL Div 2A game at Corrigan Park. Pic by John McIlwaine

So what of Saturday’s opponents?

Well, Westmeath make the journey to north Antrim having come off the back of their first loss in 2019.  A shock defeat it has to be said, to Kerry in Mullingar.  The Kingdom with two points to spare after the 70 minutes and a score line of 2-16 to 1-21.  If there was ever a really bad time to play the Lake County, Antrim have fallen upon it.  They’ll be hurting after that loss and will be eager to get back to winning ways.  Add to that the fact that had the perfect opportunity to study Antrim after last week’s game was streamed live on GAA Now. They have a lot of the same faces from matches gone past still revelling in the maroon shirt, Robbie and Gary Greville with Aonghus Clarke and Allan Devine while I wouldn’t expect Killian Doyle to not miss much from frees.  An opening day win with 13 points to spare over Offaly would be a fairer reflection on how good this Westmeath team are and what they’re capable off although it should be noted that the Faithful County put in a much-improved performance against Antrim last weekend.

Westmeath manager Joe Quaid wathced the action from the terraces at O’Moore Park, Tullamore last week.

When it comes to Antrim against Westmeath, the Saffrons have done everything but get over the line.  We need Saturday to be different.  It has to be different.  Essentially, it’s the semi-final of the Joe McDonagh Cup for the Saffrons.  The semi-final of a national competition and 70 minutes from a final in Croke Park.  After last weekend’s hugely impressive performance against Offaly, Antrim’s confidence could not be higher.  It was that good a performance but as has been mentioned in the aftermath, nothing was won on the day other than two points.

That performance is deserving of a ferocious support to help get them over the line in what promises to be another huge battle.  The commitment, drive, desire and passion they showed and a willingness to fight for everything spoke volumes for what they show in the Saffron shirt.  Pride.  This team have come a long way in the space of six months and they deserve every man, woman and child to make their way to Dunloy for 2pm.  If you have plans, cancel them.  If your neighbour has plans, get them cancelled as well.  If you’ve any Saffron blood coursing through your veins, make your way to the Cuchullain Village and get your support behind this team.

They need us. 

Ask not what your county and do for you but what you can do for your county.

Enlist at Pearse Park and put your faith behind the Saffron cause.

Aontroim Abu.

Brilliant Rowland denies the Saffrons in McDonagh Cup

Joe McDonagh Cup – Round 2

Antrim 1-19 Laois 2-24

Saturday May 18

Brendan McTaggart reports from O’Moore Park, Portlaoise

Antrim’s misery against Laois showed no signs of ending on Saturday afternoon as the O’Moore County saw off the Saffron challenge.  Eight points separated the sides at the end of the 70 minutes but it was the home side’s ability to take their goal chances that effectively changed the game.

First half goals from Paddy Purcell and Willie Dunphy set them on their way with Dunphy’s 26th minute goal the major blow for the Saffrons.  Trailing by six points, Antrim were awarded a penalty but Neil McManus’ effort was superbly saved by Enda Rowland in the Laois goals.  Barely 60 seconds later the Laois lead was extended to double figures.  A seven point swing that gave the home side a substantial lead and had Antrim on the backfoot for the remainder of the game.

Rowland’s penalty save was right out of the top drawer and unfortunately for the Saffrons, it wasn’t an isolated incident.  He denied Antrim on a further five occasions while the Saffrons were also denied by the crossbar and post.  Antrim’s goal came in the 61st minute, McManus converting a 20 metre free despite six Laois men on the line but it was all in vain. 

Laois were slicker from the first whistle with their running off the shoulder hugely impressive.  Their teamwork and work ethic gave the Saffrons little time to settle and while Antrim fared better after the restart, they were always up against it to turn the match around. 

Antrim captain Conor McCann takes a tumble over Laois corner back Joe Phelan who brilliantly blocked down McCann’s shot at goal.

Last day out 13 men in a Saffron shirt wrote their name on the list of scorers, on Saturday they had an equally impressive eight.  McManus top scoring with 1-3 (1-1, free and 0-1 ’65) while Keelan Molloy and Ryan McCambridge recorded 0-4 from play each.  The Ruairi Og man saw red for a second yellow late in the game to take some of the shine off what was another strong performance but the home side were worthy of their margin of victory on the balance of play. 

Antrim were guilty of too many errors while Laois seemed to punish any indiscretion made by a player in a Saffron shirt, especially in the first half.  They improved after the restart but Laois were always a step ahead.

Like the game against Kerry, Antrim made a slow start.  The home side were first to every ball and proactive in their approach rather than reactive.  They imposed their game on Antrim from the first whistle but some wayward shooting meant they held just a one point lead before Paddy Burke equalised for Antrim in the fifth minute.

The applause had barely died around O’Moore Park when the home side scored their first goal.  Goalkeeper Rowland launched a huge poc out with the sliotar landing on the Antrim 21 yard line.  The Saffrons defence failed to clear with Purcell taking full advantage, giving Ryan Elliott no chance in the Antrim goals.

Antrim responded well and but for the brilliance of Joe Phelan, they could have had a goal moments later.  The Laois corner back heroically denying Conor McCann when the Antrim captain had his sights set on goal. 

A brace of points from Mark Kavanagh (free) and Cha Dwyer were answered to by white flags from McManus and McCambridge but Laois were well on top.  Kavanagh (two frees), Jack Kelly, Purcell and the lively Ross King landed white flags with James McNaughton (free) and Eoin O’Neill finding the only response for Antrim to leave the home side six points clear after 20 minutes.  In fairness Antrim were looking more dangerous in attack and could have scored their first goal of the game in this period, Rowland denying McNaughton after the Loughgiel man showed great presence to fire low to evade the three defenders on his heels.

The inside forward duo of Ciaran Clarke and Eoin O’Neill were becoming more prominent and it was the Ballycastle man who provided the moment of brilliance for another Antrim goal chance.  Spotting McManus on the run, Clarke provided an inch perfect cross field ball for the Ruairi Og man to run onto.  Through on goal, McManus was felled by Matthew Whelan and Antrim had a penalty to claw their way back into the game.  McManus struck the penalty to the bottom right hand corner with venom but Rowland was equal to his shot and at full stretch managed to keep the sliotar out.  The home side countered with Jack Lennon firing over to open a seven point lead before scoring the second goal of the game with the next attack.  Purcell collecting a high ball before providing Willie Dunphy with a pop pass on the run.  Dunphy was through on goal and made no mistake, once again giving Elliott no chance.  From potentially reducing the Laois lead to three, in the space of 60 seconds Antrim were trailing by 10 points and faced with an uphill task.

McCambridge (two), Keelan Molloy and Ciaran Clarke found the target for Antrim in the time that remained only for Laois to reply with Aaron Dunphy, Matthew Whelan, Jack Kelly and Kavanagh giving the home side a 10 point lead at the short whistle.

Antrim players stop the ball on the line as Laois go for a goal from a 20m free later in the first half.

Half time: Laois 2-13 Antrim 0-9

Playing with the help of a strong wind in the second half, Antrim needed a fast start.  It didn’t come.  Laois dropped deep and starved the Antrim forwards of space while being more accurate infront of the target.  Eight minutes into the second half, the home side had stretched their lead to 13 points with Aaron Dunphy, ‘keeper Enda Rowland (free), Kavanagh and Cha Dwyer finding the target with McNaughton the solitary Saffron scorer in the same time.

Antrim showed more attacking cohesion and created another goal chance, Molloy dancing his way through with three Laois defenders on his heels.  He pulled on the sliotar having lost control but Rowland once again denied the Saffrons.  McManus (’65) and a brace from Molloy got Antrim firing once again and while another huge free from Rowland temporarily halted the Saffron charge, Antrim looked like they could make headway into the Laois lead.

Points from O’Neill and McCambridge reduced the deficit to nine points and it could have been better for the Saffrons but Clarke’s innovative strike found the wrong side of the post.  The home side responded with a brace of points from Kavanagh (free) and Cha Dwyer before Antrim finally found the back of the Laois net in the 61st minute.  McManus with a rasping 21 yard free that finally beat Rowland, despite the Laois ‘keeper getting a touch.

Substitute Stephen Bergin and McManus (free) swapped scores but time was running out for the Saffrons and their hopes were all but ended when McCambridge’s game was cut short.  The Cushendall man seeing red for a second yellow card with four minutes remaining.  Antrim continued to push for goals but the Laois defence yielded very little.  Kavanagh landed his seventh white flag of the game with substitute David Kearney responding for the Saffrons. 

Neill McManus’s hurl breaks as he contests a high ball during the Joe McDonagh Cup game in Portaloise. Pic by Sean Paul McKillop

Antrim carved another goal chance with Eoghan Campbell’s snapshot finding the wrong side of the post after Paddy Burke’s delivery but it wasn’t Antrim’s day in front of the target.  McManus tried for more heroics from placed ball but his drive hit the bottom of the right hand post and while the sliotar fell loose, Clarke could only scoop his effort over the bar.  Molloy and the impressive Cha Dwyer rounded off the scoring in injury time to leave Laois eight point winners.

A harsh reminder of hurling at this level can be cruel.  Laois deserved their win but the game was defined in small moments throughout the hour.  An incredible penalty save, heroic Laois defending and goal keeping while Laois had the quality to punish with a style of play that was entertaining to watch.

Onwards to Offaly in two weeks time.

Laois centre forward Willie Dumphy scores his team’s second goal less than a minute after Neil McManus’s penalty was saved at the other end

TEAMS

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Stephen Rooney, John Dillon, Phelim Duffin; Paddy Burke (0-1), Conor Boyd, Matthew Donnelly; Neil McManus (1-3, 1-1f’s, 1 ’65), Nicky McKeague; James McNaughton (0-2, 2f’s), Ryan McCambridge (0-4), Keelan Molloy (0-4); Ciaran Clarke (0-2), Conor McCann, Eoin O’Neill (0-2)

Subs: David Kearney (0-1) for M Donnelly (HT); Nigel Elliott for N McKeague (HT); Martin Burke for J Dillon (45); Eoghan Campbell for J McNaughton (45); Daniel McCloskey for C McCann (64)

Laois: Enda Rowland (0-3, 3f’s); Donncha Hartnett, Matthew Whelan (0-1), Joe Phelan; Padraig Delaney, Ryan Mullaney, Lee Cleere; John Lennon (0-1), Jack Kelly (0-2); Charles Dwyer (0-4), Willie Dunphy (1-00), Paddy Purcell (1-1); Mark Kavanagh (0-7, 4 f’s, 2 ‘65’s), Eanna Lyons, Ross King (0-1)

Subs: Aaron Dunphy (0-2) for E Lyons (27); Conor Phelan (0-1) for J Lennon (45); Stephen Bergin (0-1) for P Delaney (49); Eoin Gaughan for R King (58); Eric Killeen for L Cleere (62)

Referee: Patrick Murphy (Carlow)

Saffrons face a familiar foe

Joe McDonagh Cup-Round 2

Antrim vs Laois @ O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, 3pm throw in.

Ref: Patrick Murphy (Carlow)

By Brendan McTaggart

Antrim hurlers return to championship action on Saturday and a trip to familiar surroundings.  O’Moore Park, Portlaoise lies ahead for a 3pm throw in as Eddie Brennan’s Laois welcome the Saffrons to the midlands.

Having secured a comprehensive and eye-catching win against Kerry in Dunloy last weekend, Neal Peden and his management team have guided the Saffrons to the perfect start.  A win against a side who have caused many a nightmare for Antrim in the past and an overall performance that warmed Antrim hearts on a cold Saturday evening in the north Antrim village. 

St John’s clubman and Saffrons manager Peden was delighted with how his side put in a fully committed performance to the final whistle: “They stuck to the task.  We set out with a plan and to a man they stuck to the task.  We knew it would be a 20 player effort and the five players that came on and upped the pace.

“We have a panel now that we really believe in.

“We had to beat Kerry.  They beat us the last couple of times and when people see what we did to Kerry today they’ll realise we’re a force.

“It’s a results business and we got the result today and that’s the most pleasing thing for us.”

Nigel Elliott runs at the Laois defence during last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup game in Dunloy. Pic by Dylan McIlwaine

All six of Antrim’s starting forwards had recorded scores before half time against Kerry.  It’s not uncommon to happen in hurling but for a team who have been reliant on one or two players for scores in the past, this was a hugely pleasing statistic.  Throw in the fact 13 players added their names to the list of Antrim scorers and you start to see the potential Peden had spoken about before the Kerry game.  Off course one swallow doesn’t make a summer but it’s nice to hear the swallow sing and Peden was also pleased with his attacking options: “The lads that came off the bench scored as well.  That is something we’ve been working on.  We have key players like Neil (McManus) who we know will do a certain role but today the younger ones got the scores today as well.  You can’t ask for more than that on the day but the way we drove on really pleased us.  We weren’t satisfied with being three up, we kept at them and at them. 

“Today it wasn’t just about the win.  We went out and played a certain type of hurling that made sure we got the win.”

With two away matches in the coming weeks, Laois this weekend and Offaly in a fortnight, Peden acknowledged last Saturday’s match could have been seen as a must win game if Antrim were to have success in this years Joe McDonagh Cup: “There was a lot riding on it today, there’s a lot riding everyday but today was a big day for us after the league and the younger lads coming in. 

“We’ve got a bit of momentum now.  We’ll get out this week and push on.  Get to Laois and push on.  It’s not about hope anymore, we feel we’ve got a team where we can compete.  This is our competition to compete in and we can.

“The manner of the win was good for our confidence as well.  It wasn’t a one or two point win, we drove on and we have that belief now that we can do that.  It’s about driving on and not looking back, that’s key.” 

For all the attacking prowess Antrim showed against the Kingdom, they yielded just four points from open play.  Were it not for the brilliance of Shane Conway from frees it would have been a greater margin of victory.  Ryan Elliott in the Antrim goals was never tested and while Kerry came with negative tactics, the Antrim defence after a shaky start were never troubled as Peden continued: “We’re an energy team.  We’re a young energetic team and we knew if we pressed those big strong men and they are a big strong team, they want to get you into clasp with their physicality.  They do it in football and they’ve been doing it in hurling for years.  But today when we got the ball into space we were much more agile and faster team.

“We coped in the back.  We were strong and solid which was pleasing.  We dealt with the high ball and that’s something we’ve been working so hard on.  That breaking ball, getting under it and getting the ball away quickly.

“We talked about early delivery and we got that today.  Things went to plan but we’ve always said that if things go to plan and the guys turn up and their attitude is right, we’re a good force.”

There’s no doubting it was a good win and a better performance.  Antrim will need more of the same, if not an improved performance on Saturday against a Laois side buoyed by their victory on match day one of the McDonagh Cup.

A four point victory against the pundits’ favourites, Offaly has also given the O’Moore County momentum.  A huge win for the Laois men and considering they also recorded 17 wides over the 70 minutes, it shows they were more than worthy of their victory.  Goals from Cha Dwyer, Eanna Lyons and Paddy Purcell laid foundations with Mark Kavanagh on free duty.  The returning Ross King and the ghost of championships past for the Saffrons adding four points for his side also.

Antrim’s Daniel McCloskey in action during last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup game against Laois at Pease Park Dunloy. Pic by John McIlwaine

In the recent past there is never more than a poc of the ball between Antrim and Laois with the Midlanders defeating the Saffrons on three occasions in 2018.  Five points separated us when we were last in Portlaoise under the floodlights while a single white flag was all that came between Antrim and Laois in the Division 1b relegation play-off and last year’s McDonagh Cup – both matches in Dunloy and both matches that they should have won.

That’s in the past now and as Peden alluded towards after the Kerry game, it’s time to look forward to the future.  Antrim will have a clean bill of health and a team that’s gelling nicely with the additions from last season.  Maybe there was benefit to the Portugal training camp that the players had worked hard to fund in recent years after all?  Food for thought. 

Momentum is gathering, a win on Saturday and the dream can begin again.  If only it was as simple as that.  Laois are Antrim’s bogey team in recent times and any win in the midlands is always hard earned.  It will take something special to leave Portlaoise with the winning start still intact but this side are capable. 

Time to turn potential into reality. 

That one’s for you Seany

Joe McDonagh Cup – Round One – Saturday May 11

Antrim 3-19 Kerry 0-14

Brendan McTaggart reports from Pearse Park, Dunloy

Antrim dedicate win to late great Seany Burns who died this week

To say it was expected may be pushing the margins fantasy, for even the most ardent and blinkered Saffron fan.  But to say it was deserved, no one could argue.  Antrim got their Joe McDonagh Cup campaign off to the best start possible on a sunny but cold Pearse Park as they despatched the challenge of Kerry with 14 points to spare.

A comfortable margin of victory and every inch as comfortable as it sounds.  Despite leading by just a single score at the interval, Antrim pushed on in the second half and out fought, out manoeuvred and out hurled a side who have caused them problems beyond belief in the past. 

Kerry came to Dunloy as favourites but they were left chasing Saffron shadows for the majority of the match.  In our preview, Antrim manager Neal Peden told of his belief in the Antrim forward unit.  Some may have thought it as some psychology but Peden couldn’t have been more correct if he tried.  Out of their tally of 3-19, just six points came from placed ball while Antrim had 13 different names on the scoresheet. 

13.

Antrim’s Matthew Donnelly grabs a high ball. Pic by Cathal McOscar.

https://www.northernproperty.com/

Unlucky for some.  Kerry yes but most certainly not Antrim.  The Saffrons may have taken some time to hit their straps, in a scrappy first half where Kerry played with the substantial wind, the visitors to Pearse Park played very negatively.  Packing their own defence and leaving Jack Goulding as a lone target man.  At one stage in the opening 35 minutes there wasn’t a Kerry man within 45 yards of Goulding.  The Munster men looked to play short passes around their own half back line and midfield, trying to manoeuvre the Antrim defence but the Saffrons were a step ahead.  Ryan Elliott’s goal never looked threatened and but for the brilliance of Shane Conway from placed ball, it could have been an even more comfortable win for Antrim.

The Antrim forwards will take the plaudits but there’s no doubt the platform for the victory came from their defence.  Stephen Rooney impeccable, Conor Boyd imperious while his McQuillan’s clubmate Mattie Donnelly was a major contender for man of the match.  A strong performance throughout but Donnelly excelled in the second half and rarely put a foot wrong.

Kerry’s Michael O’Leary flies high win the ball in a challenge with Antrim’s Matthew Donnelly and Joe Maskey.

Antrim had to wait until the eighth minute before registering their first score of the match, Eoin O’Neill finishing a well worked move from wide on the left.  The visitors had already raced into a three point lead by that stage with Conway’s frees (two) and Michael O’Leary putting them into a good position after the opening exchanges.

The sides went tit for tat with James McNaughton (two frees), Ryan McCambridge, Keelan Molloy and Conor McCann getting their names on the scoresheet with Conway (two frees), Colum Harty and O’Leary keeping the Kingdom ahead before Antrim scored the opening goal of the game.  Nicky McKeague delivering a sideline ball into the direction of McNaughton.  The Loughgiel man collected among the crowd and passed to Ciaran Clarke.  The Ballycastle man raced clear and managed to fire the sliotar to the back of the net to give Antrim the lead for the first time in the match in the 32nd minute.

Both sides had been guilty of missing chances in the time before Clarke’s major.  Kerry reaching double figures (10) with their wide count while Antrim didn’t fare much better, returning eight in the same time frame but Clarke’s major gave the home side a lift for the remainder of the half.  A brace of Conway frees were answered to by O’Neill’s second white flag of the half, a superb score from wide on the right and with the angle against him, the Dunloy man had the last say of the half as Antrim took a one point lead into the interval.

Antrim 1-7 Kerry 0-9

The Saffrons would have been content with their efforts in that first period.  They weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders but they deserved to hold some sort of lead at the short whistle.  They took some time to come to terms with the negative tactics of Kerry and against the wind but they cut loose in the second half.

Tomas O’Connor and Conway (free) fired over either side of Conor McCann’s second point of the afternoon.  Antrim began to turn the screw however and the Kingdom were wilting under the Saffron pressure.  Paddy Burke left his half back berth to fire over before the home side hit their second major of the half.  Conor Boyd breaking free from the defence before passing to McKeague.  The Dunloy man launched the sliotar high into the heart of the Kerry defence but it took an awkward bounce in front of Martin Stackpoole. In the Kerry goal and bounced over his shoulder and high into the net.

Antrim’s Neill McManus in aciton against Kerry’s Tómas O’Connor.

A brace of points from McManus frees continued the Saffron charge and while Conway landed his eighth free of the match, it was a brief respite for the visitors as Antrim piled on the scores.  Clarke and Molloy firing over to open a seven point gap with 15 minutes remaining.

The frustration of the Kingdom was plain to see and their fate was effectively sealed in the 57th minute when John Buckley saw red for a dangerous foul on Donnelly.  Antrim took advantage of the open spaces as Kerry opened up in an attempt to get back into the game.  McManus landed his second monster free before substitute Nigel Elliott scored their third goal of the contest.  The Dunloy man collected the ball 50 yards from goal and rode a couple of heavy challenges using his pace and power to get him clear before finding the bottom corner with seven minutes remaining.

Substitute David Kearney added his name to the scoresheet before a brace of frees from Conway brought Kerry to with 10 points of Antrim with four minutes of normal time remaining.  Antrim kept their grip on the game and finished with points from the impressive Molloy, McManus’ fourth free of the match and white flags for substitutes Joe Maskey and Kevin Rice.  Icing and cherry added to the Saffron cake at the end of a second half where everything they touched turned to gold.

The perfect start and the dream starts once again.  A trip to Laois lies ahead for Neal Peden’s charges but the hope and dreams can start once again.  After the game the Saffrons manager dedicated the win to his friend and mentor Seany Burns who passed away during the week, a fitting tribute for a Saffron legend.  For now, all roads to Portlaoise in seven days’ time.

TEAMS

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Stephen Rooney, John Dillon, Phelim Duffin; Paddy Burke, Conor Boyd, Matthew Dillon; Neil McManus, Nicky McKeague; James McNaughton, Ryan McCambridge, Keelan Molloy; Ciaran Clarke, Conor McCann, Eoin O’Neill.

Subs: Nigel Elliott for J McNaughton (48); David Kearney for N McKeague (61); Joe Maskey for E O’Neill (61); Dan McCloskey for C Clarke (67); Kevin Rice for C McCann (68)

Scorers: Neil McManus 0-4 (4 f’s); Ciaran Clarke 1-1; Nicky McKeague 1-00; Nigel Elliott 1-00; Keelan Molloy 0-3; James McNaughton 0-2 (2 f’s); Conor McCann 0-2; Eoin O’Neill 0-2; Ryan McCambridge 0-1; Paddy Burke 0-1; David Kearney 0-1; Joe Maskey 0-1; Kevin Rice 0-1.

Kerry: Martin Stackpoole; John Buckley, James O’Connor, Evan Murphy; Sean Weir, Bryan Murphy, Tomas O’Connor; Colum Harty, Jack Goulding; Shane Conway, Michael O’Leary, Jordan Conway; Dan Goggin, Michael Boyle, Padraig Boyle.

Subs: Michael Slattery for O Boyle (50); Patrick Kelly for C Harty (59); Daniel Carroll for J Conway (63); Gavin Dooley for J Goulding (65)

Scorers: Shane Conway 0-10 (10 f’s); Michael O’Leary 0-2; Colum Harty 0-1; Tomas O’Connor 0-1.

Referee: Liam Gordon (Galway)