As the adrenalin rush at the full time whistle faded into aching bones and tired eyes on the journey home from Fraher’s Field in Dungarven yesterday, my mind raced for a time on what I had witnessed a few hours earlier.
With my brother John (Curly) and a few dozen other Antrim supporters we were privileged to watch and record for posterity Antrim footballer’s victory over Waterford in a division 4 semi-final which would ultimately mean we would be playing our football in division 3 next year.
A Conor Eastwood goal late in the game settled jangling Antrim nerves and certainly settled mine even though it never looked likely that the result would end any other way. Antrim had dominated from throw in to final whistle but missed at least four goal chances to settle the issue much earlier.
They led 0-6 to 0-00 and then 0-8 to 0-1 during the opening half that they largely controlled but a late rally from Waterford left the score at 0-8 to 0-4 at the break. It was like that for a good deal of the second half with Waterford battling to get back into it but never quite threatening a turn around with the Antrim defence competently doing their job.
As Waterford keeper Paudie Hunt pulled off two superb second half saves to deny Antrim the goal that their overall play deserved I decided, stool and camera in hand, to make my way to the other end of the field.
Surely with all the goal chances we had created one would come and like all photographers I wanted to capture the shot that would have everyone talking in awe. These shots don’t come very often but to be fair, Curly captures quite a number more of them than me.
As fate would have it, it arrived but when Odhran Eastwood got on the end of a great movement I was too busy out there kicking every ball to compose myself and my photograph of what turned out to be the winning goal was a lot less spectacular than the goal itself.
I got the next best thing, as you can see in the featured photograph at the top of the article, Odhran Eastwood’s celebration. It sums up everything about the day, Eastwood’s jubilation which was being reciprocated by the Antrim fans lucky enough to be there and the despair on Waterford pair, Hunt and Kiely who knew the game was finally over.
As the final whistle sounded the brother and I were on the field photographing those wild scenes of celebration. It’s been a while since Antrim footballers had anything to celebrate and celebrate they did!
A kind and much appreciated offer to join the team and mentors at their hotel for something to eat had to be turned down. A lay-bye, two miles up the road and a quick coffee and some sandwiches out of a filling station had to do as Curly spent half an hour getting the first report and photographs up on the site. People were reading the Antrim success story in county Antrim while we were still in Waterford. The wonders of modern technology!
Back home, 14 hours after the 500 plus miles round journey had begun it was back to the computer to post half a dozen reports on the site from the day’s full-football programme and in bed by midnight to dream about our day in the sun at Fraher’s Field in Dungarven.
As Antrim make the long journey south today for tomorrow’s NFL semi-final against Waterford they will be asking themselves the question, what Waterford team will turn up?
Waterford played in a division 4 South section that contained only three sides, Waterford, Wexford and Carlow. The Decies travelled to Carlow on day one and shipped a heavy defeat at Dr. Cullen Park which suggested they were not serious challengers in the division.
A week later they made the journey to Wexford where they shocked a few punters when they ran out winners by 2-13 to 0-18. In the final game of the group Wexford travelled to Dr. Cullen Park knowing they needed a win to have any chance of qualifying but went down by the minimum to group winners Carlow.
Looking at the form line through the two games Waterford made vast progress from day one when they lost by 15 points to Carlow while making only one change to their starting lineout and on that form they pose a serious challenge.
Manager, Shane Ronayne will have his side well prepared for tomorrow’s winner take all contest but Antrim will of course have watched videos of the two games and done their own analysis. Enda McGinley and his management team will have the Saffrons as ready as they can be and on what I have witnessed this year, I believe they will have enough in reserve to make the step up to division 3 next season.
Wexford 0-18 Waterford 2-13
Wexford recovered from a heavy defeat to Carlow to record an impressive victory over Wexford in the second game a league section that contained only three teams, leaving Wexford having to defeat Carlow if they were to have any chance of progressing to the semi-final.
It didn’t happen and although Wexford turned in a solid performance they found themselves again on the wrong side of a one point defeat.
With Waterford having lost their opening game to Carlow they had to gain a victory over Wexford and in a tight game they did just that.
The game had a rather bizarre ending as Waterford finished the game with 13 players having Michael Curry dismissed on a second 67th-minute yellow card, while deep into added time John Elsted received a black card. But the brandishing of cards did not end there as Referee John Hickey red-carded Michael Furlong eight minutes into additional time following an off the ball incident.
Wexford led 0-3 to 0-0 after 12 minutes through points from Robbie Brooks, Mark Rossiter, free and 45, but it was the accuracy of Conor Murray and Jason Curry that gradually hauled the visitors back into the game.
Wexford led 0-4 to 0-3 at the first water break but five points in a row from Conor Murray (2) Jason Curry (2) and Stephen Curry had the visitors in front 0-8 to 0-5. Wexford finished the half strongly with a succession of points through Michael Furlong, Mark Rossiter, Tom Byrne, and Robbie Brooks to lead 0-10 to 0-8 at the interval.
Although Tom Byrne with a fine point increased his side’s lead on the resumption, two quick counterattacks set Waterford up for victory. The first after 37 minutes produced a penalty and black card for home keeper Darragh Brooke. Sub Conor Swaine took over in goal with attacker Sean Nolan withdrawn. Swaine excellently got down to save Darragh Corcoran’s penalty, but the attacker followed up to goal the rebound and tie the game 0-11 to 1-8.
Waterford got a second crucial break after 55 minutes when a quick counter-attack caught out the home defence and it was Brian Looby who got on the end of a sweeping move to fire his side 2-10 to 0-14 in front, and despite late Tommy Byrne points they held out for victory.
The Waterford team showed only one change from the side who lost heavily to Carlow with Fitzgerald replacing Elsted at half back and they are sure to provide Antrim with a firm test on Sunday but I’m sure it is a test the Saffrons are more than capable of passing.
Waterford team v Wexford: P Hunt; S Boyce, B Looby (1-0), D O’Cathasaigh; J Elsted, M Curry, D Ryan; T Prendergast, M Cummins; J Curry (0-6, 4f, 1, 45), C Murray (0-4), D Hallinan; S Curry (0-1), D Guiry; D Corcoran (1-1, 1-0 pen). Subs: M Kiely for Cummins (h.t.), J Gleeson (0-1) for Hallinan (55), T Guiry for D Guiry (60), D Fitzgerald for Ryan (67), D Meehan for Boyce (74), C Maguire for J Curry (74).
Much has been made of the new faces in Enda McGinley’s Antrim panel this year, and rightly so, but the former Errigal Ciaran man’s ability to persuade a number of players who had left the county setup to return this season has played a big part in the Saffron success story to date.
One of those players is Cargin’s James Laverty who had been part of the Antrim set up for 9 years before stepping away owing to family commitments. This year the Erin’s Own man has been persuaded to re-join the Saffron camp and has been a regular starter at the heart of the Antrim defence.
Today I spoke to the Cargin stalwart and asked him about his return to county duty and how he is feeling as Antrim head into this weekend’s division 4 league semi-final against Waterford in Dungarvan.
Paddy Mac: James having stepped away from the county setup following a long and distinguished career in the Saffron jersey what was it that persuaded you to give it another go?
James Laverty: (I’d say the biggest thing was getting the opportunity to play at the highest level again. Also with the current squad there is a lot of young players eager to do something with Antrim and I wanted to be part of it.)
Paddy Mac: your return has coincided with a successful start to the season for Antrim and while I know you are too modest to take credit for that success you have certainly played you part. How has life been under Enda McGinley, Stephen O’Neill, Sean Kelly and the rest of the backroom team?
James Laverty: Under the new management this year it’s definitely been enjoyable. They have set clear targets for where we want to be at the end of the season and very straight talking when it comes to how we are performing.
Paddy Mac: You have served under a number of managers during your Antrim playing career. What is different about the present management?
James Laverty: Every manager I’ve played under has brought something new to the squad and one thing about this setup is the standards they expect. On and off the field they expect high standards which this squad has bought into. The management team is making sacrifices and are preparing us to perform to the best of our ability. They simply ask that we do the same.
Paddy Mac: One of the things that has impressed me this year has been the side’s never say die attitude and their ability to keep going when things appear to be going against them. Antrim teams in the past have had a tendency to drop the head when things were not going their way. What do you attribute this change of attitude to?
James Laverty: It’s 100% down to the coaching and the style of play the management team are trying to implement. The players have a belief that no matter what happens during the game or what the score is we can still get up the field for another score.
Paddy Mac: Sunday’s game against Waterford is arguably the most important game that Antrim have played in for some time and a win would guarantee promotion. What is the mood like in the Antrim camp as they head to Dungarven?
James Laverty: The mood in the camp is good. Players are fighting for positions and even squad places so that can only be good for the team.
Paddy Mac: Three wins on the trot was probably more than anyone would have dared predict before a ball was kicked in this year’s National League campaign. Antrim have mixed the excellent with the mediocre in some of these games but dogged determination has got them over the line. What areas do you feel we need to improve on if we are to be successful on Sunday?
James Laverty: I think the most obvious aspect is we have conceded goals in every game. If we can reduce this then we’d make it a bit easier on ourselves. We probably need to manage the game slightly better than we have done in previous games. Waterford will have good spells and so will we but we’ll need to make our good spells count.
Paddy Mac: Antrim beat Waterford handy enough in Haggardstown last year but there was nothing at stake for them and they have certainly shown improvement under their new management team and their 2-13 to 0-18 win away to Wexford made people sit up and take notice. What do you know about Sunday’s opponents and who are the Waterford players Antrim will have to keep a tight rein on?
James Laverty: From what I have seen of them they are a seriously hard working team who can move the ball very quickly into their forwards. They have a number of good scorers in the forward line and very physical around the middle. They were fully deserving of their victory over Wexford so we will have to be on the top of our game if we are going to get the result we want.
Paddy Mac: Finally James what have the preparations been like in the two weeks leading up to Sunday’s semi-final?
James Laverty: Preparations have been as good as they can be. We’ve been focussed on this game since the final whistle in the Leitrim game so hopefully we can get the right result.
In the build up to Sunday’s Division 4 Football League semi-final in Dungarven the Saffron Gaels Paddy McIlwaine speaks to Sean Kelly, a member of the Antrim management team. Sean is a former Antrim player and represented the Saffrons for 10 years, experiencing the highs and lows with his beloved county and had a very successful career with his club St. Gall’s with whom he won an All Ireland club title in 2010 as well as 2 Ulster club titles.
Widely respected throughout the county, the St. Gall’s man followed a successful playing career with a spell as St. Gall’s manager and when Enda McGinley was appointed as Antrim manager at the start of this season one of his first appointments was Sean Kelly. Sean brings a wealth of knowledge of the football scene in Antrim and it was this knowledge that McGinley was keen to tap into.
Today I took the opportunity to speak to the man who still turns out for St. Gall’s when needed and I asked him about how preparations are going for Sunday’s semi-final.
Paddy Mac: Sean it was no surprise to most Antrim Gaels that Enda McGinley appointed you as part of his backroom team when he took up the role of Antrim manager. Your knowledge of the football scene in the county is unsurpassed. How did the appointment come about?
Sean Kelly: To be honest, it wasn’t something I expected at all. Enda rang me one evening explaining that he was putting a team together to go forward for the job and was looking to see if I had any interest in coming on board with himself, Stevie O’Neill and Stevie Quinn. After a few further conversations it was an easy decision in all fairness. The team he was putting together, the plans, ideas on football, squad etc. were all first class and I felt it was an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often and I would regret it if I had turned it down!
Paddy Mac: Tell us about the preparation of the Antrim team from day one. Like most other counties it can’t have been easy under the Covid restrictions but it seems to have gone well. What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome?
Sean Kelly: It was a fairly intense period of preparation within the management team first and foremost as it was important we were able to get up and running as soon as possible. Obviously when lockdown kicked in there were quite a few hurdles, the main one being the lack of face to face time we had with the players. To be fair to the players all the things that were put in place for them during lockdown like their individual fitness work, multiple Zoom meetings, video analysis were all carried out to the tee with the result that when they did return they were in great shape with a fair idea of the general concepts of the play and the expectations we had of them. It made life much easier for us then as a management team and also was a great reflection of the buy in and the commitment that the players had to be part of the squad and to help the county progress.
Paddy Mac: As a lifelong Antrim fan I was delighted to see that the Antrim management retained quite a number of the panel who were part of Lenny Harbison’s team. I’ve always been of the opinion that there has been too great a turnover of players every time a new manager is appointed and continuity is important for the team’s development and progression. What’s your thoughts on that?
Sean Kelly: I experienced that at times during my own playing career with the county and it was always frustrating as you struggle to get a sense of consistency which is essential if you are going to build anything. I know Lenny was watching games from all levels within the county and therefore it was highly unlikely we were going to find a raft of new players that he hadn’t seen and again from a consistency point of view it was important to have a steady start point as we hadn’t time to evaluate all the players so it wouldn’t make sense or be fair to start to form judgements based on little evidence.
It was also great to be able to retain a lot of the backroom team who had been in place with Lenny and they have been fantastic since the beginning. The level of preparation/ time etc that they have given will go unnoticed by anyone on the outside but without them the whole thing would struggle to function so we are delighted to have them
Paddy Mac: Tell me about the new faces in the Antrim panel and the boys who have made the step up from last year’s successful U20 team and what they have brought to the team?
Sean Kelly: It has been great to see a number of young lads in the set up like Pat Shivers, Conor Stewart, Ciaran Bradley, Eoghan McCabe, Luke Mulholland. They all have great futures with the county and also like in the case of Conor Stewart they are more than ready to step up. The good thing about them is they aren’t overawed by the challenge of getting into the team and have shown a great attitude throughout. I think it helps that they know Enda has no problem throwing anyone in no matter what the age so while yes, they are still in a development phase of their county careers they are more than capable of pushing within the squad. There are more players that we are keeping a close eye on that are with the clubs this year but things look very positive in terms of quality players coming though.
Paddy Mac: The National League campaign has been quite a roller coaster for Antrim this year but a very enjoyable, if at times nerve wracking experience for Antrim supports and undoubtedly for the management team. Give us your thoughts on the three games Antrim have played to date and the lessons learned from those games?
Sean Kelly: Firstly 3 wins from 3 games is excellent from our point of view obviously, a few more grey hairs from the manner in which they occurred though! They were 3 massive challenges for the boys, away to a top team in Louth with their experienced management was always going to be a tough challenge to start off with, Then Sligo and Leitrim are both quality teams and if you looked at it before a game was played you would have struggled to see any team winning all games such is the competitive nature of the division and the closeness of the teams.
What we have learned is that we have a group of players who won’t give in and have shown they are capable so far of overcoming any challenges that have been put in front of them. We have a competitive panel that has players that have made great contributions from the start and from the bench as our ‘finishers’. Obviously, there are elements of our game that we need to improve and be more consistent with but with the efforts the players are putting in I am sure we will continue to improve.
Paddy Mac: The change of rule regarding penalty awards for fouls inside the 20 meter area that are perceived to have prevented a goal scoring opportunity have come in for a lot of criticism and have certainly exasperated this reporter. Antrim have probably suffered more than most from the rule, particularly in the Sligo game. What are your feelings on the rule and what steps have the management taken to minimise the damage that we have suffered from this rule?
Sean Kelly: I think the first thing is that it has been very difficult for referees to have these additional rules to deal with. It is a tough enough job as it is! And while we have had instances where we have maybe struggled to understand it, it is something that at this stage we just need to deal with by being as disciplined as possible in what we do.
Paddy Mac: Our late collapse against Leitrim will have been of concern but I thought that the amount of substitutions we made disrupted the momentum we had for most of the game and it looked at one stage as if we might run up a massive score. Momentum is everything and when you lose it, it is difficult to regain it. Paddy Cunningham and Tomas McCann, as they have done so often came to Antrim’s rescue. What lessons have been learned from the Leitrim game?
Sean Kelly: The lads and management were disappointed after the performance which is a good trait to have even though we won. It is a collective thing and we had to be critical of ourselves firstly. Yes, we had changes but the quality of player was still there. Our game management just wasn’t what it needed to be and probably the most important thing we learned was that if we start to drop our standards by even a small amount then you will be punished.
Paddy Mac: Waterford came in for quite a bit of criticism when they refused to travel North for the last game in the 2020 National League. Antrim called their bluff and the game was rescheduled for Haggardstown where as we know, Antrim won convincingly. Will that game have any bearing on Sunday’s semi-final and how important is it that Antrim players forget about how comfortable that win was?
Sean Kelly: I think it has been important this year for us to look at each game as it comes and from the videos we have watched of Waterford they are a team that deserves our utmost respect. Both the players and management are fully aware of the challenge in front of us and we have been pushing the players all year to raise their standards and we know come Sunday that is exactly what we will have to do. So I think last year is of little relevance and I expect a different Waterford this time around with their new manager who has had great success in his career to date.
Paddy Mac: Sean, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I was speaking to a few spectators making their way out of Corrigan last day and one of them asked me, when was the last time Antrim footballers won three games on the trot. I wasn’t able to answer him but wouldn’t it be great if the same punter was posing the question after Sunday’s game in Dungarven, when was the last time Antrim footballers won four games in a row?
As Antrim travel to Dungarven on Sunday for a National football league Div. 4 semi-final against Waterford a look back through the archives reminded me that we have been in this position before.
Antrim entertained Waterford at Casement Park back in 2008 needing only a draw to qualify for the division 4 final and were confident of getting the result we required.
It didn’t quite pan out that way however as the ‘Decie’ arrived in Belfast to upset the apple cart and it was they who advanced to the NFL Div. 4 final.
Maurice O’Gorman’s 51st-minute goal denied Antrim a place in the NFL Division 4 final as Waterford recorded a shock three-point win at Casement Park.
A draw would have been enough to secure promotion for Antrim, but Waterford battled to their fifth league win.
Antrim only led by the minimum at the interval – 0-05 to 0-04 – with Paddy Cunningham kicking four points.
However, O’Gorman’s goal, along with an eye-catching display by Connie Power, left Saffrons manager Jody Gormley dejected at the final whistle.
Sunday’s semi-final takes on even more importance with the news that the final is unlikely to be played this year while it also presents the present Saffron team with the opportunity to avenge that heart breaking defeat back in 2008.