Laois slip proves costly as Antrim hold out for GAA League victory at Corrigan Park
Allianz Football League Division Three, round five: Antrim 1-10 Laois 0-11
THERE'S many a slip 'twixt cup and lip – and Antrim arguably were only able to enjoy a celebratory drink last night because a Laois player lost his footing late on.
Just a point separated these sides in the 69th minute when a short kick-out from Antrim captain and goalkeeper Chris Kerr went straight to Evan O'Carroll, who released Niall Donoher towards goal, only for the Courtwood clubman to tumble to the ground as he changed direction.
Possesion, and the game, lost.
Antrim held their nerve, held onto the lead, and even extended it in the third minute of added time as their goalscorer CJ McGourty brought his tally to 1-4 with his third successful free of the day.
The Saffrons won't have been breaking open the Champagne at this result but at least they have taken a step away from the 'last chance saloon' and its trapdoor back down to Division Four.
Joint-manager Frank Fitzsimons wasn't getting carried away, despite some understandably exuberant celebrations on the long whistle, insisting that Antrim are still looking over their shoulders rather than up the table.
"No, we said at the start of the year we thought six points was the magic number and we hope it still is. We still need two points to, hopefully, stay up."
These two were extremely hard-earned, home hopes helped by Laois losing big players (Stephen Attride and Donie Kingston) to injuries before 25 minutes had been played – and a man to a red card in first half added time.
Visiting boss Peter Creedon did not complain so much about the loss of Damian O'Connor as the fact that Antrim were not also reduced to 14 men after his player clashed several times with roving Saffron full-forward Conor Murray:
"The sending off before half-time was a killer. The Antrim guy hit first - I think Damian did raise a hand all right, but it should have been two reds, not one red, and that poor refereeing decision cost us dearly today."
Creedon also questioned the strange incident – also in that incredible injury time at the end of the first half – which resulted in his influential centre half-forward David Conway (who had scored two points from play) and Antrim's Kevin Niblock both being forced off by black cards following the same clash.
"I honestly didn't see what happened there but I don't know how two people got a black card. That must be a first ever, is it? I can't explain that," said a puzzled Creedon.
Antrim supporters must also have been wondering why their 'keeper and defenders were playing the ball about at the back in the second half, into the teeth of the wind and the faces of high-pressing Laois players.
That risky approach led to that late chance for Donoher, an earlier palmed point by wing-back Padraig McMahon, and other opportunities for the visitors in the closing stages, including a free that O'Carroll really should have converted.
Fitzsimons did offer something of an explanation, saying: "In those conditions it maybe doesn't look the best but we had an extra man and I thought we used him well enough.
"Sometimes we got a bit tight into them, were off-loading the ball into traffic, so we'll have to work on that this week before going down to the Athletic Grounds."
Yet as Creedon pointed out, it could have proved very costly for Antrim: "We had plenty of chances - we could have finished the last five minutes with a goal and three points if we'd taken everything, but we didn't. Antrim came down, got a free, and that was enough for them. Look, it's a game we've left behind us, to a degree."
However, Antrim were never behind in this game, and led for much of it, from the moment that their impressive wing-back Paddy McBride opened the scoring in the third minute on his home St John's turf.
A burst of scoring around the quarter-hour mark – two points from Murray, one from midfielder Jack Dowling – helped Antrim lead by 0-4 to 0-1, but the game got much tighter after that, thanks to Conway's point-scoring and Ross Munnelly's free-taking.
Indeed the teams were level at five points apiece when the ref dismissed O'Connor, after consulting a linesman, and Antrim took advantage of Laois's disarray to grab the crucial goal.
The Saffrons' other wing-back turned spare man, Paddy McAleer, had a claim for a penalty early in the second period, but that was rejected and Laois drew level at 1-5 to 0-8.
Yet they could not get in front, even when Munnelly had a free after his substitution had been delayed to allow him to take it.
Despite missing one free and striking a post with another in the tricky conditions, McGourty did convert a couple to put Antrim ahead twice more, and corner-back Conor Hamill raced up for a great score on the hour.
Still Laois kept coming, but O'Carroll missing a close range free and Donoher's loss of footing prevented Antrim suffering what would have been a hard loss to take.
Antrim: C Kerr (capt.); C Hamill (0-1), P Gallagher, P Healy; P McBride (0-2), D Lynch, P McAleer; J Dowling (0-1), S Beatty; K Niblock, R McCann, M Fitzpatrick; C J McGourty (1-4, 0-3 frees), C Murray (0-2), S McGarry
Subs: B Bradley for McGarry (46), S McVeigh for Donnelly (56), D Nugent for Dowling (64), N Delargy for Lynch (66)
Yellow cards: McGourty (27); Murray (35); Lynch (41); McCann (47).
Black card: Niblock replaced by S Donnelly (38, first half)
Laois: G Brody; D Strong, D Booth, A Farrell (0-1); S Attride, J Kelly, P McMahon (0-1); J Finn (0-1), J O'Loughlin; N Donoher; D Conway (0-2), D O'Connor; R Munnelly (0-3, 0-2 frees), D Kingston, P Kingston
Subs: E Buggie for Attride (18, inj.); E O'Carroll (0-2) for D Kingston (25); S Moore (0-1 free) for Conway (38, first half, black card); C Murphy for Munnelly (49); K Lillis for P Kingston (55); D O'Reilly for Finn (63)
Yellow cards: Farrell (11); O'Connor (35); Finn (51).
Black card: Conway replaced by S Moore (38, first half).
Red card: O'Connor (36, first half).
Referee: Eamon O'Grady (Leitrim).