Saffron celebrations

Looking back at Saturday’s final for the last time we look at the players celebrations after the game. Many of them had family members join them on the field after the game. When the final whistle sounded some of the players didn’t know how to react. Relief more that elation was the first sentiment but soon it sank in what they had achieved and the celebrations soon got goin in earnest.

Conal Cunning receives the Man of the Match award from GAA Presdient Larry McCarthy

Saffrons edge Kingdom in thriller

McDonagh Cup Final

Antrim 5-22 Kerry 4-24

Saturday 4th June

Brendan McTaggart reports from Croke Park, Dublin

Relief? Ecstasy? Joy? It’s hard to quite put into words the wave of emotions that came across us all at Croke Park as Antrim edged Kerry in a ding-dong battle to claim the McDonagh Cup for the second time in their history.

One point separated the sides at the end of the 70 minutes when it looked like Antrim would win comfortably by half time.  Then, the Saffrons held a ten point lead and looked to have seen off a mini-Kerry revival but the Kingdom were relentless in the second half, led superbly by substitute Jordan Conway and Mikey Boyle in defence.

Ultimately it was the Saffrons ability to create and execute their goal chances.  Five in total, two for Ciaran Clarke, while James McNaughton, Seaan Elliott and man of the match Conal Cunning.  Coby would finish the game with 1-12 to his name in an excellent performance that was probably more notable for his defensive work in a second half where it was all hands on deck for those in an Antrim shirt.  Keelan Molloy playing in his own full back line also while Seaan Elliott made a couple of huge defensive plays at the death that could have been the difference on that day.

Antrim rarely looked like they could lose this one and the changes made in the second half all had the desired impact.  Niall McKenna, Daniel McKernan and Eoin O’Neill all chipping in with crucial scores but credit where it’s due to a Kerry side who showed incredible desire and never-say-die spirit, ultimately however, they ran out of time.

In a first half where Antrim largely dominated, the Saffrons made great use of the spaces in Croke Park and left Kerry chasing shadows.  Kerry couldn’t handle the slick movement and incisive passing of the saffrons in an opening half that saw Antrim take a 12 point lead after just 21 minutes, thanks largely to goals from Ciaran Clarke (5) and James McNaughton (10).

The Kingdom rallied and kept Antrim quiet for a ten minute period that saw them outscore 1-4 to 0-2, their goal coming from a Podge Boyle penalty in the 26th minute.  Boyle would finish the half with 1-6 beside his name, his penalty finding the postage stamp at the Davin Stand goals.

They threatened another major moments with Podge Boyle’s effort flashing wide after cutting inside and finding space.  With Ryan Elliott’s goal at his mercy, he fired wide.

Antrim responded however found their game once again in the closing stages of the half.  Conal Cunning ninth point of the half, seventh from place ball preceded a fine McManus point before Seaan Elliott scored their third goal.  Clarke with the vision to find Keelan Molloy in space and the Saffrons midfielder headed for goal.  His shot was low but saved by Louis Dee in the Kerry goals only for the sliotar to fall to Elliott who made no mistake.

Coby Cunning and Daniel Collins swapped scores in first half injury time to leave Antrim with a 10 point lead at the interval, Antrim 3-14 Kerry 1-10.

Both sides made great starts to the second half and Antrim’s lead was reduced to eight when Conal Cunning scored the Saffrons fourth major.  Gerard Walsh sending the sliotar long where McManus deflected the ball into the path of Cunning.  The Dunloy man read the flight of the sliotar perfectly, collected and made no mistake.

The Saffrons seemed to go more direct with their play as the second half progressed.  McManus on the edge of the square and later Domhnall Nugent as target men but the Kerry defence looked to have their number and two goals in the space of four minutes at the other end of the pitch has the hearts racing for those clad in Saffron.  Jordan Conway proving to be a thorn in the Antrim defence with his trickery, movement and expert finishing.

The Saffrons were given a lifeline when Paudie O’Connor was black carded for an illegal challenge on McManus with the Cushendall man bearing down on goal.  Clarke expertly dispatched the penalty in the 60thminute to put five between the sides but Antrim would only score four further points in the 10 minutes of normal time and six of added on by referee Sean Stack.

Kerry poured forward and all the momentum going their way in the closing stages.  They looked like carving open the Antrim defence for the major that would bring them back to parity while Domhnall Nugent looked to have a goal disallowed harshly for a square ball infringement.

Podge Boyle scored Kerry’s fourth goal of the game in the 76th minute, taking his own tally to 2-12 for the game but it was the last action of the final as Antrim held on to claim the honours.

The Saffrons certainly gave everything they had and at the end of the contest there was more than a few tired bodies on the Croke Park turf.  The celebrations will come and go quickly however as they look forward to welcoming Cork to Corrigan Park next weekend in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

TEAMS

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; David Kearney, Gerard Walsh, Paddy Burke; Joe Maskey, Eoghan Campbell, Conal Bohill; Michael Bradley, Keelan Molloy; James McNaughton, Neil McManus, Ciaran Clarke; Conal Cunning, Conor McCann, Seaan Elliott

Subs: Daniel McKernan for C Bohill (50); Domhnall Nugent for C McCann (53); Niall McKenna for J McNaughton (62); Conor Johnston for C Clarke (64); Eoin O’Neill for N McManus (69)

Scorers: Conal Cunning 1-12; Ciaran Clarke 2-2 (1-00 pen); James McNaughton 1-1; Seaan Elliott 1-00; Neil McManus 0-2; Keelan Molloy 0-2; Niall McKenna 0-1; Daniel McKernan 0-1; Eoin O’Neill 0-1

Kerry: Louis Dee; Conor O’Keefe, Eoin Ross, Eric Leen; Sean Weir, Fionan Mackessy, Mikey Boyle; Michael Leana, Podge Boyle; Colin Walsh, Colum Harty, Paudie O’Connor; Gavin Dooley, Daniel Collins, Shane Conway

Subs: Jordan Conway for C Harty (25); Maurice O’Connor for G Dooley (45); Niall Mulcachy for C Walsh (49); Brian Lonergan for D Collins (63)

Scorers: P Boyle 2-12; Jordan Conway 2-1; Daniel Collins 0-3; Shane Conway 0-2; Fionan Mackessy 0-2; Gavin Dooley 0-1; Michael Leana 0-1; Maurice O’Connor 0-1; Paudie O’Connor 0-1

Referee: Sean Stack (Dublin)

Eoin O’Neill celebrates after scoring a late point against Kerry

See You All in Croker

Brendan McTaggart gives a few thoughts on Antrim’s McDonagh Cup journey ahead of the decider in Croke Park on Saturday.

A love-hate relationship that has defined the last four years.  That would be the best way to describe Antrim’s connection with the McDonagh Cup since its inception.

Every game a battle, every game fraught with danger, every game with permutations on down the line.  The McDonagh Cup has been a wonderful addition to the beautiful game but at the same time, you want to get out of there.

When the McDonagh Cup began, Antrim were instilled as favourites to be relegated to the Christy Ring Cup.  A sign of the progress that has been made on the pitch.

In seasons gone by in the McDonagh Cup, as Antrim supporters we looked at games in hope.  Hoping to pick up a win before a game in Mullingar or Tralee, Tullamore or Carlow.  This season has been different.  Such has been the hurling produced in recent times and the feel-good factor around the county, there’s been an expectation.  Expecting to beat Carlow, Down, Offaly and even Kerry last time out despite a number of ‘regulars’ missing.  A sign of the squad depth developed over the recent years.

Conor McCann lifts the McDonagh Cup after Antrim’s win over Kerry in December 2020

Two years ago in the month of December, Antrim claimed their maiden McDonagh Cup.  Conor McCann leading the Saffrons up the steps of the Hogan Stand with more pigeons than spectators in Croke Park.  Covid depriving the Saffron following from making the journey down the Jones Road.  On Saturday, that changes.  We now have a chance to watch Antrim play in Croke Park on one of the biggest days in the hurling calendar.  A potential stepping stone for 2023 while either Cork or Wexford lays in wait in the All-Ireland Qualifier.  A home draw dependant on the home venue, I read that somewhere in the small print during the week.  Get the hashtags ready again – Corrigan Or Nowhere.  Hopefully it doesn’t get that far and someone has the sense to know Corrigan Park is ‘fit for purpose.’

Saturday will be another battle.  Kerry proved two weeks ago in Corrigan Park they aren’t there to make up the numbers and Antrim will have to be at themselves to leave Croke Park with the Cup in hand.  They are a side who play an expansive brand of hurling and have changed plenty since that meeting in Croke Park back in December 2020.

Memories from that game, McManus making his long awaited return to make a huge impact off the bench.  Domhnal Nugent coping Darren Gleeson on his arse at the full-time whistle and Donal Og Cusack’s summarising of the final.  That last memory still raises the old blood pressure every time I think on it.

This years memories?  Eoin ‘Sammy’ O’Neill’s point against Offaly, ridiculously sublime and the type of thing only he could be capable off.  The Offaly support were in great voice until those closing seconds.  Great stuff in the Corrigan Park stand.  Ciaran Clarke’s goal (made by a great Joe Maskey run from the throw-in) against Down coming before I had lined out the page in my scribbling pad in Ballycran and checking if Dan McConnell’s twitter updates were accurate from Pairc Tailteann in the game against Meath.  A match I couldn’t attend due to other commitments but seven goals later and our place was secured in this year’s final.

Brendan McTaggrt and his dad Malachy. All being well both will be in Croker on Saturday evening

I wasn’t lucky enough to make that final given the Covid restrictions, I’ll be there on Saturday with my aul fella and daughters.  A family occasion.  One not to be missed, watching Antrim in Croke Park at any time should be embraced.  Any one I spoke to before our last McDonagh final ‘wished’ they could be there in Croke Park to watch Antrim play.  Now’s your chance.  A 4:30pm throw in, maybe doesn’t normally suit everyone, make it suit this time.  Let’s give this side the support their performances, effort, desire and commitment to the Saffron shirt deserves. 

Reaching their third McDonagh decider in succession, Kerry are knocking on the door.  Maybe light a Saffron candle tonight that the Kingdom doesn’t make it third time lucky.

Aontroim Abu.

Campbell: “It will come down to a real battle and whoever wants it more on the day.”

Brendan McTaggart speaks to the Antrim captain.

Antrim Eoghan Campbell will have the honour to lead Antrim out on Saturday afternoon in the Joe McDonagh Final.  The Cushendall clubman has been Mr Consistency for the Saffrons this season and he’s relishing the opportunity to play in Croke Park.

This is Campbell’s first year with the armband but he told us his role within the team hasn’t changed: “To be honest, it hasn’t really changed much. Probably the way I approach it and the way I am, it doesn’t really change much. It is just me on the pitch, the team has to be there to carry us over the line. You might get to lift the cup at the end of the day and you’ve a few extra responsibilities. In terms of hurling or what I do on and off the pitch, it hasn’t changed anything about me. It is just a title you are given for the time you are out there.

“When you are leading your county, it is always a good thing. It will probably mean more to my family, seeing me lead Antrim out. My father had followed me everywhere, to every game. My mother and my two aunties still follow me to every game.”

Since 2020, Antrim have introduced more players to the squad.  Campbell told us that he and the other more senior players in the squad have been emphasising to embrace the occasion: “It was definitely unique in 2020 because there was nobody (support) there. Now, there will be people there. So, even for the boys who have been there, it is still going to be a different experience. 

“What the senior boys have been preaching is just communicating with ourselves and focusing on ourselves. Trusting that we’ve done the hard yards in November and December and, if we bring the work-rate and express ourselves well, we’ve a great chance in Croke Park. 

“The big thing is, we don’t want to go down there and go into ourselves, we have to embrace everything, the crowd, and just go at it. As I said, you don’t get to play at Croke Park too often, so you have to enjoy it.”

Many had predicted an Antrim and Offaly final before a ball was thrown in this season and up until the last round of games, this was still the same.  Antrim had secured their place in the final only for the Kingdom to win in Corrigan and Carlow to upset the Faithful County.  All resulting in an Antrim and Kerry final.  Campbell wasn’t at all surprised with the eventuality: “I don’t really think there was much of a reaction to be honest. We obviously knew, depending on the results, it could be any one of Carlow, Offaly or Kerry. 

“We knew we were in the final after beating Meath the week before. We really just focused on ourselves. We’d been carrying a few injuries and a few boys seen game-time against Kerry. 

“The focus has just been on ourselves.”

With the McDonagh Cup Final back in its ‘home’ as the Leinster Final curtain raiser, it will be a different occasion for Campbell and his team mates.  But the Saffrons captain said it’s exactly where it should be and the football powers should learn from the competition with a view to the Tailteann Cup: “I think having it before the Leinster Final is great, it works out well. You have the round-robin and, in the final, you know you are going to be playing before the likes of Kilkeny, Galway, Wexford or Dublin in a Leinster Final. 

“The promotion of the Joe McDonagh Cup has gotten better and Covid probably helped with that in terms of streaming services showing the games. 

“In terms of the actual promotion of the competition from the GAA – that could be better. 

“The media ban didn’t really help us. In terms of the first year of the Joe McDonagh and the first year of the Tailteann Cup, it is probably night and day. Offaly and Wexford played in the first round of the Tailteann Cup and you’d hardly have known it was on. 

“If you are an Antrim footballer, there is no promotion and no incentive. Whereas there is plenty of talk around the Joe McDonagh. People are chatting about, if Kerry win, should they go into the Munster Championship.

“It is night and day in terms of the promotion of the two competitions I would say.”

“The Joe McDonagh Cup is always going to be competitive and it is a great cup and it gives you competitive games and, if you win, you go into the Leinster round-robin.”

Eoghan Campbell

On Kerry, Campbell continued by saying there needs to be a change in the eventuality of a Kingdom win on Saturday: “Absolutely, if Kerry win, they should be in the Munster Championship. There are six teams in the Leinster Championship, there are only five in Munster so even it up? It is very simple, there’s nothing complicated about it. If I was a Kerry player knowing I’d have to play Tipperary after winning the Joe McDonagh. . . it is not a great prospect and I’d be up in arms to be honest. It is unacceptable and it is really unfair on them if they do win.”

Kerry are now playing in their third McDonagh Final in succession.  They’re a team who have been knocking hard to make the breakthrough and Campbell knows it’s a sterner test than the one they faced in 2020: “From the time we played them in 2020, it is very different. They’ve players who aren’t there and some new players who have come in, some very good players. We saw that last week, Colin Walsh, Eoin Ross, Fionan MacKessy. They’ve developed as a team and as individuals and it is going to be a massive battle. 

“We probably know each other inside out and we’ve played a lot over the last couple of years and we’ve been evenly-matched. 

“It will come down to a real battle and whoever wants it more on the day.

“I think they’ve improved (from 2020). Even the structure they bring to their game. They’ve developed their style of play and how they want to play. They probably don’t have a reliance on Shane Conway anymore – they have a lot more scoring forwards. 

“It is a different team and a different prospect.”

Gleeson: “It’s one day in the year, make it happen.  Get down and support this team”

Darren Gleeson leads his Antrim team to Croke Park and the final of the McDonagh Cup once again, hoping for a return to Leinster competition at the first time of asking.  With preparations in full tilt, the Saffrons manager said the circumstances leading to the final couldn’t be more different from the 2020 finl at those unique surrounding: “Two years ago it was a battle trying to get the people in to make the whole unit on the day.  We had limited numbers and it was a completely different focus.

“This time, there’s loads of tickets available, the families are there, the people you need around you are there.  The different support teams that’s needed for an inter-county side are there and they weren’t available in 2020.  There’s no similarities.  Limerick and Waterford were on afterwards and it was like two challenge matches in a back field in God knows where.

“This time we’re on Leinster Final Day with Kilkenny and Galway, the Brian (Cody) and Henry (Shefflin) sub-plot, and Antrim and Kerry with the opener.  So it’s completely different and really exciting.”

With the squad facing unparalleled injuries this season, it’s given Gleeson and his team the opportunity to assess his squad in the heat of battle that the McDonagh Cup brings.  Gleeson is pleased with how this current Antrim squad have progressed: “Massively evolved.  You take it during the season we’ve had people out for different times and people in our squad, 31 players, and I believe every one is capable of coming in and doing a job for us.  They’ve proved that this year.

“Even last weekend (against Kerry) when we made five or six changes.  The guys really gave a good account of themselves and I was please coming away from that game.  Similarly when we had injuries early on in the Joe McDonagh, all the boys stood up and played really well.”

The news is encouraging on the injury front however with the list reducing ahead of the final: “Paul McMullan has a broken thumb but he’s coming back quickly.  Damon McMullan is making huge progress, we didn’t have Damon all year and he’s back on the field doing a bit of hurling which is great.  Seaan Elliott had a knock on the hand but he’s grand and Ciaran Clarke is back in full training.  Everyone else got a bit of game time last week, Keelan (Molloy) and Neil (McManus), Niall McKenna the weekend before.”

Molloy and McManus got game time against Kerry in Corrigan Park, crucial in their recovery from injuries with Matthew Donnelly and David Kearney also getting game time and giving Gleeson options in defence.

This current squad have developed both on and off the pitch such is their bond within the squad.  Gleeson paid tribute to the Antrim Board and the players themselves who have contributed to the club-like feel: “Everyone says they’re like a club team, the way they’re bonded with each other but like in any walk of life, when you get a group of people who have the same goals and ambitions and put them in the same room, put a platform in front of them where they can become the best player they want to be, you’ll get cohesiveness.  That’s what they’ve created, not me or Gary (O’Kane), Johnny (Campbell), Jim (Close) and Clinton (Hennessy).  They’ve created this atmosphere themselves because they’ve given themselves fully to it.”

Despite defeating Kerry in the league and league decider in 2020 as well as the McDonagh Cup Final, Gleeson insists they are leaving no stone unturned ahead of what promises to be a titanic match on Saturday afternoon: “Last weekend shows us Kerry are a different animal to how they were two years ago.  They’re a lot physically stronger, very well drilled and a really good game plan.  They look like a team who really knows who knows what they’re doing.  We’ll have to be on top of our game to get anything out of this game.”

Two years ago and Antrim playing in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, the Saffrons support were starved of watching the final in person.  Now, the hurling Gods have decreed those of a Saffron persuasion have another chance, albeit on Leinster finals day.  It’s a massive opportunity for Antrim to continue their development and showcase to the country what they are capable of on the biggest stage of them all.  The Antrim manager finished our conversation by telling us exactly what Saturday means to him and implores the Saffron public to make the journey down the M1: “It’s everything.  It’s a massive day for the county.  It’s a prime opportunity for Antrim as a county to sell our games.  Show the kids, their parents, one of the biggest days in the hurling calendar, Leinster Final day.  Antrim are down in the McDonagh Final and I hope we see a huge Antrim crowd coming down the road.  It’s one day in the year, make it happen.  Get down and support this team.

“I always say this to the players, when you pass the doors when you’re driving from Cushendall or Belfast or Ballycastle or wherever, the doors you’re passing are the people who have reared you to play the game and they’re the people you’re going representing. 

These boys have been travelling across the length of the country and county in the dark of the morning and night to represent their county, I hope that will be reciprocated on the 4th June.”

Darren Gleeson with selectors Jim Close and Gary O’Kane