By Brendan McTaggart
Brendan McTaggart was still on a high afer Saturday’s win over Offaly so he tried to put a few of his thoughts down on paper.
Saturday in Tullamore. A win that was more than just a win. It was a performance in a match that Antrim needed to win. A performance that by the full time whistle had me shouting on the inside and punching the air in ecstasy. It’s not quite journo etiquette to shout and roar during the game in the press box but I have to admit when Keelan Molloy scored the first and definitely Nigel Elliott’s 66th minute major, I for the want of a better way of putting it, lost the run of myself. Following Antrim will do that to you. You live the lows and they hurt but when the highs happen and make no mistake about it, Saturday was a high, in the words of Buff Egan you ‘drink it innnn maaaaannnnnn’.
The scenes at the full time whistle was an outpouring of emotion. Fans came onto the O’Connor Park surface to congratulate the players and management on their victory, our victory. The players were full of smiles and living in the moment, despite going through 80 minutes of high intensity hurling. When you win, the hurts and pains don’t feel as bad. Adrenaline is a wonderful healer. Maybe Sunday morning was a different tale.
It was clear from an early stage Antrim’s fitness levels were on a different level to that of Offaly’s. After going a man down, they dug deep and went to a place I’ve never seen an Antrim team go before. They hunted in packs like wolves after their prey and showed a desire, a hunger that eradicated the Offaly numerical advantage. It was an incredible spectacle that at one stage in the first half I just sat back and admired. The hustle, the intensity, the tackles, the never-say-die attitude. Savage.
Going a man down so early, I got that all too familiar sinking feeling. A wee voice inside my head yelling ‘here we go.’ I was engulfed with a sense of dread but how Antrim reorganised and began to take the fight back to Offaly soon got rid of that feeling. As the first half progressed, it was never apparent Antrim had a man less on the pitch. Again, performance and intensity levels = savage.
Having watched the match back again on the GAA Now website and yes I am that guy who will do that despite being there, the quality of hurling produced was better than I had lived the first time around. Mattie Donnelly caught innumerable ball throughout the match among a crowd of Offaly hands and hurls. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from the Ballycastle man and he produced it when Antrim needed it most. McManus I described in my report as Cuchullain like, a play on words for the Cushendall man and a dry piece of humour but it was a phenomenal performance that makes you glad he wears a Saffron shirt. James McNaughton, introduced at the end of the first half came on despite carrying a knock. The Loughgiel starlet hit two of his four points before the half time break and with his trademark twisting runs, lead the Offaly defence a merry dance. Keelan Molloy’s two first half goals highlighted his performance. The Offaly defence couldn’t live with him in the first half and he put in a display that further enhanced his burgeoning reputation within the county and beyond. Nicky McKeague put his body on the line so many times, rucking for ball in a top display epitomised when he went to block an Offaly players shot with his body having dropped his hurl. Some may look at this and say it’s madness but essentially these Antrim players are prepared to so that for each other, for us and our team. They’ve developed a unity, a bond and a togetherness that drags them together when the chips are down. Maybe sharing the same living quarters during the training camp in Portugal wasn’t such a bad idea after all?
The pain of the Laois defeat was nowhere to be seen after the game. The players knew they’d let themselves down and didn’t hit the desired level to deserve the win. They did that on Saturday… and then some. Offaly were a wounded animal and were backed into a corner. They performed better than they had in their previous two outings but Antrim were just better. They played with more speed, guile, intensity and had more match winners when it mattered most.
I’ve covered Antrim matches were upon leaving, you leave with a sense of pride. Galway last February, pushing the then All-Ireland champions to the pin of their collar but ending in defeat. A savage performance against Meath in last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup, a team that had given me nightmares in championships gone past. Leaving Páírc Tailteann that day was a fine day but nothing compared to Tullamore.
The 1st June, St Justin’s Day. The day Antrim re-announced themselves to the rest of the hurling world. Forget about the demise of hurling within the Faithful County. This was the match, the performance and result that gave me my proudest moment in 30 plus years as a Saffron.
I’ve genuinely looked at the timing for Saturday in an attempt to make the Westmeath match. My daughters First Communion is at 11am, the match at 2pm. I’ve been told more than once that I’ve lost the run of myself.
I did that in Tullamore. Aontrom Abu.