Leinster GAA Senior Hurling Championship – Round 5
Antrim 4-24 Westmeath 1-19
Sunday 28 May
Brendan McTaggart reports from Cusack Park, Mullingar
Job done. Antrim travelled to Mullingar knowing their fate in the Leinster championship was on the line, but they were masters of their own destiny and after a sensational second half, it was job done.
Trailing by two points having played into the wind in the first half, Antrim manager Darren Gleeson looked a frustrated man walking off the Cusack Park pitch at the short whistle. Antrim had controlled much of the first half and held a seven point lead after 20 minutes. The home side kept Antrim to just one point in the time that remained of the first half and scored 1-7 themselves. The Saffrons reduced to 14 men with referee Kevin Jordan giving Ryan Elliott a black card for an infringement in the build up to the Westmeath goal.
That and numerous decisions in the first half had the vocal Antrim support outraged and Antrim looked all at sea. The game and momentum changed in the opening exchanges of the second half. The Saffrons came out rejuvenated with Gleeson’s words ringing in their ears and put in a performance for the ages to run out 14 point winners and leave a Westmeath team who defeated Wexford just seven days ago, chasing shadows. Two goals in either half with Conal Cunning and Conor Johnston before Eoin O’Neill and James McNaughton late in the game. Cunning finished with 1-9, his last point something that should be shown to every young player with aspirations to play the game. Seaan Elliott and Keelan Molloy covered every inch of the Cusack Park turf, Molloy with an outrageous block late in the game that saw him being picked up by Gerard Walsh and embraced such was his bravery. Mick Bradley put in another top performance and has been Antrim’s Mr Consistency this year while James McNaughton’s second half performance was more like we’ve been used to seeing from the Loughgiel man. A special mention should be reserved for Neil McManus however. If the rumours are to be believed and this was his last match in the Saffron jersey, then what a way to go out. He has been Mr Antrim for years and through thick and thin. A man that owes Antrim hurling nothing and gives everything. A man that should never have been on the pitch given the extent of his injuries but you just knew he was never missing this game. A massive influence, a leader, a legend. He deserved this game and performance to end an illustrious career.
Despite Antrim scoring the opening point of the game through a free from Cunning, Westmeath looked sharp. They held a two point lead with Ciaran Doyle, Davy Glennon and Jack Galvin all finding their range.
The first Antrim goal came in the eighth minute with James McNaughton picking up the loose ball and finding Cunning who finished superbly.
The scores were tied when Antrim struck again in the 13th minute. Bradley with the delivery where Cunning broke the sliotar into the path of Johnston. He pulled first time and the net rippled. Antrim turned the screw and added a further four scores in as many minutes.
Seven clear and with the home side on the ropes, Westmeath scored their first point for 15 minutes and began to find their range.
Four points separated the sides when Westmeath scored their only goal of the game. An error in the Antrim defence and O’Brien capitalised. He passed to Owen McCabe who was through one on one with Ryan Elliott. The Dunloy man brought McCabe down but the Westmeath forward managed to get his shot away to score the goal. It was a double blow however with referee Jordan giving Elliott a black card.
While Antrim struggled, Westmeath reaped in the mayhem. Another four unanswered scores gave them a 1-12 to 2-7 lead at the short whistle.
Half time came at the right time for the Saffrons. Gerard Walsh was deputising between the sticks and they reorganised their defence. They needed a change on mindset in the second half and they came out a different team.
Inside the opening 60 seconds they were back on terms on the scoreboard and by the third minute of the half they were back ahead. They were turning the screw on the Westmeath defence and forcing turnovers while defensively they held the home side to just four points in 31 minutes of hurling. Between times, they were running riot. McNaughton, McManus, Cunning, Seaan Elliott all finding scores to put Antrim eight points clear with five minutes of the 70 remaining.
The third and fourth Antrim goals came inside two minutes at the death, the first of those from substitute Eoin O’Neill all but sealed the win. Burke finding Molloy who found O’Neill in space. He rounded his man with a side step and bore down on goal, making no mistake when one on one with Noel Conaty. The fourth goal came from an interception by Seaan Elliott and he passed to McNaughton. The Loughgiel man took his tally to 1-3 and his goal a reward for an excellent second half performance.
The final whistle blew and the Antrim celebrations started. Mixed with a hint of relief but nevertheless, this performance felt like a defining moment for this side. It was as good as I personally can remember Antrim playing and to do it under the circumstances they were faced makes it all more sweet. The Leinster Championship will see the Saffrons in 2024 while Westmeath will play in the McDonagh Cup after Wexford pulled off a shock result in Kilkenny.
Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Paddy Burke, Ryan McGarry, Niall O’Connor; Gerard Walsh, Eoghan Campbell, Conal Bohill; James McNaughton, Michael Bradley; Keelan Molloy, Niall McKenna, Conor Johnston; Conal Cunning, Neil McManus, Seaan Elliott
Subs: Daniel McKernan for C Bohill (11); E O’Neill for C Johnston (61); Rian McMullan for N McManus (70); Joe Maskey for N McKenna (70+2); Domhnall Nugent for C Cunning (70+3)
Scorers: C Cunning 1-9 (7fs); J McNaughton 1-3; C Johnston 1-1; E O’Neill 1-1; N McKenna 0-3; S Elliott 0-2; N McManus 0-2; N O’Connor 0-2; K Molloy 0-1
Westmeath: Noel Conaty; Darragh Egerton, Conor Shaw, Johnny Bermingham; Tommy Doyle, Aaron Craig, Robbie Greville; Jack Galvin, Charlie McCormack; Davy Glennon, Eoin Keyes, Niall O’Brien; Owen McCabe, Joseph Boyle, Ciaran Doyle
Subs: Niall Mitchell for C McCormack (41); Peter Clarke for A Craig (48); Derek McNicholas for C Doyle (59)
Scorers: C Doyle 0-7 (4fs 2 ‘65s); D Glennon 0-4; N O’Brien 0-3 (1f); O McCabe 1-00; J Boyle 0-2; J Galvin 0-2; J Bermingham 0-1
Referee: Kevin Jordan (Tipperary)