Antrim secure promotion with battling win over Wicklow
Allianz National Football League Division Four: Wicklow 1-12 Antrim 2-13
ANTRIM secured promotion to Division Three with a hard-fought four-point win against Wicklow in Aughrim on Sunday.
Wicklow’s Gary Allen and Antrim’s Tomas McCann exchanged early goals but the Saffrons built up a five-point lead at the break playing with a very strong wind at their backs.
The home side were reduced to 14 men shortly on the restart after full-back Stephen Kelly was shown a second yellow and Antrim looked to have done enough to seal the win when Brian ‘Bam’ Neeson finished off an excellent counter-attack midway through the second half to put the visitors seven ahead.
However, a storming finish from the Garden County left Antrim clinging on and a wonder save from Chris Kerr to deny Darren Hayden preserved a three-point lead. Paddy McBride’s injury-time point sealed a nervy victory which ends Antrim’s three-year stretch in the basement division.
Speaking after the game, an elated Frank Fitzsimons hailed the resolve of his players and praised the work of his backroom team: “I am delighted with it. It [Aughrim] is a tough place to come to win a match.
“To be fair, our boys played very well in tough conditions. We are happy to be going up the road with the win. We have good footballers and it doesn’t matter if there is a wind or not. A few times out there, we should have taken our scores and, in the second half, a couple of decisions went against us.
“A win is a win and we are over the moon. We knew it was going to be tough - it always will be tough down here. The last two years, we have played them and they gave us all we wanted. I am delighted.
“The work the players have put in over the past four or five months has been unbelievable. The backroom team - I have to congratulate of them. There is a hell of lot goes into it.”
Knowing a win would be enough to seal promotion, Antrim got off to a nightmare start when they conceded a goal inside the first two minutes with Allen the first player to beat Chris Kerr in the National League. Antrim replied in kind when Neeson’s high, floating delivery was palmed into the net by Tomas McCann.
Points from Mark Sweeney (two), Michael McCann and Matthew Fitzpatrick helped Antrim establish control with Wicklow reliant on placed efforts from midfielder Rory Finn to keep them in touch.
Leading by five at the break, Antrim saw their lead trimmed to four when Finn kicked a stunning point from a sideline two minutes into the second-half. The hosts then lost Kelly to a second yellow and Antrim made the extra man count as Neeson (free) and substitute Conor Murray extended their lead once more.
Centre-back Dean Healy’s wind-assisted scores moved Wicklow to within three on 48 minutes but a great move from Antrim looked to have put the game beyond the Leinster side.
Substitute Ryan Murray dashed through the heart of the Wicklow defence and played a neat one-two with Tomas McCann before passing inside to the unmarked Neeson, who palmed the ball past Robert Lambert.
Yet, Wicklow were determined to make Antrim work for the two points and a late rally of frees from Paul Cunningham and Finn (two) set up a tense finale. A Cunningham point from play left three between the sides with three minute of normal time remaining.
Wicklow’s inevitable goal chance fell to Hayden after good hands from Cunningham and Paddy Byrne but Kerr was equal to the shot and Antrim were sparred a ‘45 when the ball rebound back off the Wicklow centre-forward.
McBride’s late point relieved the pressure from his team who can now look forward to an appearance in Croke Park against Louth in the Division Four final next month.
Wicklow: R Lambert; C Hyland, S Kelly, E Murtagh; A Murphy, D Healy (0-1), K Murphy; R Finn (0-6, 0-6fs), D Woods; D Hayden, G Allen (1-0), M Kenny; M O’Connor, P Cunningham (0-5, 0-4fs), M Lennon; Subs: R O’Brien for A Murphy (45mins), A McLoughlin for Woods (45mins), S Thompson for O’Connor (56mins), J Crowe for Murtagh (58mins) P Byrne for K Murphy (58mins).
Antrim: C Kerr; K O’Boyle, R Johnston, C Burke; N Delargy, M Johnston, J Laverty; N McKeever, J Carron; M Fitzpatrick (0-1), T McCann (1-1, 0-1f), M McCann (0-2); P McBride (0-1), M Sweeney (0-2), B Neeson (1-5, 0-5fs); Subs: C Murray (0-1) for Carron (HT), K Niblock for M McCann (52mins), R Murray for Sweeney (52mins).
Referee: B Cawley (Kildare)