Antrim beat Carlow in stormy Joe McDonagh Cup clash
Joe McDonagh Cup group stage: Antrim 2-16 Carlow 0-19
THE reddest of mists descended from the bluest of skies above the Black Mountain, gripping a Carlow side that did almost as much to beat themselves as a nonetheless gutsy Antrim did, but left enough scars behind to potentially derail the Saffrons.
There was the horrific – six very uncomfortable stitches for Neil McManus after Richard Coady struck with his hurl away from the play late on.
There was the catastrophic – a double break in the arm for Michael Armstrong, who was chopped down upon in the dying minutes as he played the ball in a challenge that went unpunished.
And there was the unfortunate – Joe Maskey, who had an excellent game and has been hurling a storm all year, suffering a broken foot, albeit that one was of nobody else’s accord.
The nature of the Carlow physicality clearly crossed a line as they finished up with 12 men, although there’s a fair chance two of the three suspended players could be back after just one game, and Coady will most likely get just two games.
The impact on Antrim’s season could be deeper and more significant.
All of that overshadowed what was a fine win for the Saffrons, who took to task the demons that had haunted them since their 5-23 to 4-15 loss at Croke Park in last year’s Christy Ring Cup final.
If anything underlined what they had learnt it was Eoghan Campbell’s first half red card.
They’d been destroyed by Jimmy Doyle hitting 4-1 that day and while he was still a major threat in Corrigan Park, albeit relatively well shut down by Conor McKinley, Antrim were determined that they weren’t going to concede goals this time around.
So when Doyle gave McKinley the slip eight minutes before half-time and bore down on goal, there was a very definite sense when Campbell covered across that the foul was coming.
Its nature, though, was enough to lean referee John O’Brien towards a red rather than a yellow. It was right on the border, the hurl coming in around Doyle’s neck with little chance of winning the ball, but lacking in any malice.
It looked like a seminal moment. Antrim had come roaring out. Their first 10 minutes were brilliant. Chests out, heads up, hearts full. Neil McManus was everywhere, Conor Johnston was a handful, Ryan McCambridge was excelling. They chased and hit and tackled, making light of obvious physical disadvantages in most positions.
Wind assisted, Antrim hit the front inside four minutes when McManus’ brain saw the gap in front of Nigel Elliott before anyone else had. The Dunloy youngster tore through to fire low across Brian Tracey and into the bottom corner.
Eoghan Campbell and McManus (free) added scores to make it 1-3 to 0-0 after seven minutes, a margin which was extended by one come the 25-minute mark, when the hosts lead by 1-7 to 0-3.
Carlow had settled a bit and were starting to find Doyle with the diagonal ball into the space in front, and Antrim, having had such success in abandoning their sweeper against Meath, redeployed one to stem that supply.
It was Campbell who was dropping back and he had to foul Doyle to prevent a certain goal, but the red card was still a surprise to most when the referee pulled it for the first, but not last, time.
Denis Murphy landed the free before Doyle fired over a fine score off his left side to make it 1-7 to 0-5 coming up to the half-hour. Having played with the wind, Antrim brows were now furrowed. That lead wouldn’t do with the way the game had now swung.
It was no bigger by the interval either, with McManus and man-of-the-match Elliott raising white flags for Antrim, while two Murphy scores (one from play) were the Barrowside response at the clubhouse end.
The Mount Leinster Rangers man narrowed it again on the restart and there was a detectable air of panic from the Saffrons. They were leathering into everything, on the referee’s back about everything. And then just when it looked like they might implode, Carlow got there first.
Jack Kavanagh got involved off the ball and, after consultations with everyone except the half-time ticket sellers, the referee showed him a straight red card that evened the game up. It was one of umpteen long stoppages that resulted in an incredible 15 minutes of injury time at the end.
The hot air dissipated from Antrim. No longer numerically disadvantaged, they almost instantly composed themselves and went back to what they had been doing. Carlow never got closer than two points, but equally it was never gone from right until all 85 minutes were up.
The latter part of that disappointed Dominic McKinley, understandably. They had two spare men and were seven points up heading into stoppage time, yet ended up hanging on amid a run of five unanswered scores from Colm Bonnar’s men.
It did look over when Nigel Elliott charred the Carlow cover, beating two, three, four men for sheer pace before squaring for Neil McManus to bat home at the far post. When McManus added two frees either side of a red card for a disbelieving Diarmuid Byrne, who pulled dangerously in the air on a puckout, there looked just one winner.
Richard Coady then saw red for an incident in the goalmouth as the ball was clearing that angered the Saffron camp, leaving McManus with an horrific injury that required hospital treatment.
He went off in the same ambulance as Joe Maskey, who had a powerful game until he suffered a suspected break in his ankle, while Armstrong stayed on until the end but went to hospital after a game played before a disappointing crowd for a game of such magnitude in such beautiful conditions.
Carlow kept plugging to their great credit, and Antrim began to panic again. Simon McCrory helped when he dropped back as the out-and-out sweeper but the rest of it was chaos in those final 10 minutes.
John Michael Nolan, who was superb for the beaten side, and substitute Conor Foley almost reeled the game right back to shore, and had an effort from James Doyle hit the right side of the netting they might well have completed the job.
That he was able to get inside despite being outnumbered four-to-win on a high ball hints at the craziness of it all. But it was a much better crazy than last June.
They bring Laois up the road this weekend knowing that they’re safe from relegation at the very least, and that a final – and that attractive All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final – are within touching distance.
That’s a crazy they can easily live with.
Antrim: R Elliott; S Rooney, J Dillon, C McKinley; J Maskey (0-1), P Burke, R McCambridge; E Campbell (0-1), S McCrory; N Elliott (1-2), C Johnston (0-2, 0-1f), N McManus (1-8, 0-7f); D McKinley, M Armstrong (0-1), C McCann
Subs: J McNaughton for D McKinley (45), E McCloskey for McCann (59), D Kearney for Maskey (60), C Carson for McManus (67), N McAuley for McCambridge (78)
Yellow cards: S McCrory (14), S Rooney (35), D McKinley (37), R McCambridge (67)
Red card: E Campbell (27)
Carlow: B Tracey; A Corcoran, P Doyle, M Doyle; R Coady, D English, D Byrne; J Kavanagh, K McDonald; JM Nolan (0-2, 0-1 line ball), P Coady, E Byrne; J Doyle (0-2), D Murphy (0-11, 0-8f), R Smithers
Subs: C Nolan (0-2) for Smithers (45), D Wall for M Doyle (62), J Murphy for E Byrne (65), C Foley (0-2) for P Coady (73)
Red cards: J Kavanagh (42, striking), D Byrne (56, striking), R Coady (65, striking)
Referee: J O’Brien (Laois)