Allianz Hurling League – Division 1b
Antrim 3-18 Laois 1-18
Sunday 12 March
Brendan McTaggart reports from Corrigan Park, Belfast
Antrim came out of a barnstorming second half against Laois on Sunday afternoon to defeat the O’Moore County and secure their Division One status for 2024. Six points between the sides at the end of a pulsating 70 minutes but the scoreline and performance mattered little on the day. This was a game that needed winning and the Saffrons stood up to be counted. A second half performance that saw them hold Laois to just four points while they played with intensity, power, guile when it was needed and a determination to get the job done.
Darren Gleeson’s men had leaders all over the pitch. Michael Bradley moving to centre half after the opening 20 minutes and played out of his skin while Ryan McGarry dealt with anything Laois could bring his way. People will look at Conal Cunning’s final tally of 1-10 and say he had a good game. Those who watched the match will see his performance and say he was outstanding. Dropping deeper, breaking lines, picking passes, Coby led Laois a merry dance along with man of the match Nigel Elliott. Starting for the first time in an Antrim shirt since 2019, Elliott was outstanding. Firing Antrim’s opening goal in the fourth minute, looking like he may have to come off soon after with a dead leg but he put in a performance for the ages. Laois couldn’t live with him with his pace, power and work rate immense.
It wasn’t all sunshine and daisies for Antrim on Sunday however. They needed a goal in first half injury time to haul themselves back into this game after a first half played largely on Laois’ terms. They played with the elements and with Enda Rowland’s restarts landing between the 21 and 45 yard line, they were causing the Antrim defence plenty of trouble. Aaron Dunphy and Tomas Keyes lively on the breaks while Antrim seemed to be shot-shy at the other end. While they were playing against the wind, they probably took too much out of the ball. Goal chances did come and go but when taking a score was the easy option, they looked for a pass to carve open a Laois defence that were swarming them at every opportunity.
With Elliott and McManus’ goals leaving just two between the sides at half time, Antrim regrouped. The second half performance was everything Gleeson would have wanted, scoring three points in injury time to give the scoreboard a little more of a healthier outlook but one the Antrim performance deserved.
The changes made throughout the game were pivotal. Playing Gerard Walsh at six was quickly changed with Michael Bradley returning to centre half where he played so well after Eohan Campbell’s dismissal against Waterford. Neil McManus moved to the edge of the square with James McNaughton roaming out to the middle third. McNaughton’s speed was causing Laois plenty of problems but the physicality McManus brought on the edge of the square meant the ball would stick and the Antrim forwards thrived off it.
The power and pace of Elliott, Niall McKenna and Keelan Molloy at rucks allowed the Saffrons to turn the screw in attack.
They were back ahead by the 46th minute, Cunning (free), Joe Maskey and McManus finding their range but if the second Antrim goal revived their challenge, the third put them in control. A sideline ‘cut’ from Gerard Walsh was broke in the air by Maskey and Nigel Elliott gathered the sliotar. Cunning ran off his shoulder, collected the pass and made no mistake with a cracking finish. Counting the last scores of the first half, it meant Antrim hit 2-5 in 18 minutes to just one point from Laois in the same period of time. Game defining, league defining.
Laois looked to their bench to try and get back into the game with Willie Dunphy, Stephen Bergin and James Duggan all introduced into the attack but Antrim never looked like letting this one go. They managed the game in those closing stages, keeping a three or four point lead while Laois rarely looked like threatening Ryan Elliott’s goals. The one chance they did have, a 25 yard free from ‘keeper Rowland but Stephen Rooney was on hand to ensure the Antrim nerves were calmed in the closing stages.
Eoin O’Neill scored a customary classy point when introduced, leaving the Corrigan Park patrons in the stand purring as the sliotar sailed between the uprights while Laois were reduced to 14 men late in the game. Substitute Gearoid Lynch seeing red for a dangerous challenge on Bradley when tempers threatened to boil over.
“I’ve been up here now what feels like a lifetime and it’s the first time we can properly prepare for the Championship”, the words from a relieved Darren Gleeson at the end. Job done for the Saffrons who entertain Tipperary next Sunday with an eye on the Leinster Championship, league points on the board and top table status secured once more.
Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Paddy Burke, Ryan McGarry, Stephen Rooney; Joe Maskey, Gerard Walsh, Niall O’Connor; Michael Bradley, James McNaughton; Keelan Molloy, Niall McKenna, Nigel Elliott; Conal Cunning, Neil McManus, Conor Johnston
Subs: Seaan Elliott for C Johnston (35); Domhnall Nugent for N McKenna (63); Scott Walsh for N O’Connor (63); Paul Boyle for J Maskey (67); Eoin O’Neill for N Elliott (inj)
Scorers: C Cunninh 1-10 (9fs 1’65); N McManus 1-1; N Elliott 1-00; N McKenna 0-2; K Molloy 0-2; J Maskey 0-1; P Burke 0-1; E O’Neill 0-1
Laois: Enda Rowland; Ian Shanahan, Liam O’Connell, Donnchadh Hartnett; Padraig Delaney, Patrick Purcell, Fiachra Fennelly; Jack Kelly, Aidan Corby; Stephen Maher, Ryan Mullaney, James Keyes; Tomas Keyes, Martin Phelan, Aaron Dunphy
Subs: Willie Dunphy for M Phelan (42); James Duggan for R Mullaney (51); Gearoid Lynch for A Corby (58); Stephen Bergin for J Keyes (62)
Scorers: S Maher 0-7 (6fs); A Dunphy 1-4; T Keyes 0-2; J Kelly 0-2; R Mullaney 0-1; J Keyes 0-1; M Phelan 0-1
Referee: Patrick Murphy (Carlow)
The Corrigan Creche – Niall McKenna and Neil McManus with their beautiful daughters at the end of Sunday’s game at Corrigan Park