Antrim run out of gas and make exit Championship to Sligo
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifier Round 1A: Sligo 0-22 Antrim 3-7
ON a Championship canvas you see everything. Every blemish. Every flaw. Every untracked run.
On a Championship canvas there is no hiding place. It tells you the truth, no matter how uncomfortable.
From an Antrim perspective, the final 20 minutes of Saturday’s All-Ireland Qualifier against Sligo made for grim viewing.
Antrim ran out of gas – and, it must be said, heart – as Sligo ran riot in the final quarter.
The ease with which Sligo got some of their scores in the latter stages will give the men in saffron nightmares.
The hurt of this defeat will run deep.
Reduced to 14 men in the 43rd minute after Jack Dowling was red-carded for a heavy hit on Mark Breheny, and then losing sweeper Mark Sweeney to a black card 12 minutes later made the outcome inevitable.
But even before Dowling was sent off, Antrim were beginning to wilt under a low evening sun in Markievicz Park.
Talent-wise, there’s little to separate Sligo and Antrim.
The uncomfortable truth for Antrim is that their hosts were fitter.
The Sligo players had stitched a few more layers of fitness to their backs over the winter months, all for precious days like Saturday.
That was the difference.
That extra bit of lungpower meant that the Sligo players could break tackles easier and make that extra, selfless run to enable them to hit 12 unanswered points between the 50th and 72nd minutes.
Antrim, by contrast, looked like a team with varying degrees of fitness.
In fairness to Antrim’s joint management team of Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams, they were tasked with building a team from scratch in January.
The squad was shorn of some much-needed experience.
Some key players were unavailable.
Some were injured.
Some were unavoidably late arrivals to the panel in 2017.
And there were square pegs being wedged into round holes.
Despite the demoralising impact of Saturday's Championship exit, there was a host of individual graphs over the season that were evidence of progress.
Conor Hamill, Peter Healy, Stephen Beatty, Conor Small, Seamus McGarry and Brendan Bradley cut their senior teeth in 2017 and offer hope for next season.
Others such as Declan Lynch, Patrick McBride, Mark Sweeney, Patrick Gallagher and Matthew Fitzpatrick left everything on the field.
For Antrim to negotiate a Championship win, however, the side were too reliant on CJ McGourty, Fitzpatrick and Tomas McCann pulling a rabbit out of a hat in attack.
McCann hit a lovely left-footed point in the 14th minute but never got much change out of Ross Donovan.
McGourty's intelligence allowed him to cause Charlie Harrison problems in the opening exchanges.
The St Gall's man fired home a 39th minute penalty that put Antrim two ahead [1-6 to 0-7], but Harrison was like stubborn Velcro from open play.
Fitzpatrick was Antrim’s greatest attacking threat though.
Every time he got the ball in his hands, he ran at the heart of the Sligo defence and his skill and industry yielded a slightly fortuitous goal in the 45th minute.
After yet another penetrating run, the St John’s man went for a point but the ball sailed over Sligo ‘keeper Aidan Devaney and into the top corner of the net.
Fitzy’s major put Antrim four points ahead [2-6 to 0-8] but given Sligo’s superiority in midfield, the home side always looked capable of mounting a comeback.
“They were coming through in waves and yet we got the goal straight after the sending-off that should have given us a lift,” said co-boss Gearoid Adams.
“Maybe there was a lack of experience there from some of the younger guys.
“But, listen, it’s a learning experience for us all. If Antrim don’t start having a higher percentage of scores to attacks we’re always going to be like that.
“The stats will tell you that they were up around 90 per cent of scoring rate and we’re probably around 40 per cent, or even lower, which isn’t good enough.
“We’ve been saying it all year: when we don’t take our chances we put ourselves under pressure and it happened today again.”
Adams felt that losing Dowling and Sweeney were fatal blows to Antrim’s prospects in a painfully one-sided second half.
“The sending-off was a major call,” Adams added. “Knowing big Jack, I don’t think it was a sending-off. We’ll probably see that later on. It was right in front of us.
“It looked as if it was accidental. He went for the ball. I don’t think he went for the man and they clashed. At most, I thought it was a yellow. That’s my opinion.
“When Sweeney went off with a black card that was actually a massive loss because he does manage the game best for us. But this is how these boys are going to gain experience, from situations like this.”
Standing in the middle of the field at the end and still shell-shocked by his dismissal, Dowling protested his innocence.
“The ball was in the air and two people went for it,” said Dowling. “Next thing, I got sent off. He hit me as much as I hit him. I can’t get my head around it.”
Sligo boss Niall Carew had a different take on Dowling’s red card.
“It was a reckless challenge,” said the Kildare native.
“It was an elbow into the mouth, into his cheekbone. I’d just be a bit worried that the socket could be fractured.
“I’m sure their management would be very disappointed because it’s not easy playing with a man down even though they went straight down and got a goal. But we didn’t panic when Antrim went four points up.”
The opening half was virtually point for point with Sligo carrying a one-point advantage in at the break. For the first half, the Antrim back-line was keeping Sligo’s fleet-footed forwards Niall Murphy, Adrian Marren and Stephen Coen under house arrest.
However, the second half was an entirely different affair as Coen in particular cut loose to notch eight points (0-3 frees).
But even the St Mary’s clubman must have been surprised by the ease with which he grabbed some of those scores.
In the 66th minute, the diminutive forward broke three Antrim tackles to score while his 72nd minute point was even easier.
Antrim’s well-drilled defensive shape and their hugely effective swarming tactics that has been a glowing feature of their play this year was sorely missing in the dying embers of Saturday’s tie.
Carew added: “I was disappointed in the first half that we were only a point up. We attacked the centre too often.
“Our plan was to flood the wings and attack them at pace but thankfully we got it right in the second half.
“It was easier to score in the town goals with that breeze and you could see how difficult it was for Antrim to score at the other end in the second half.”
Even though the game was already up for Antrim long before the final whistle, Patrick McBride kept driving forward and finished to the net in the third minute of injury-time.
Substitute Ryan Murray had two sights of goal too in the short time he was on the pitch but Devaney did well to stop his second effort.
“We have the forwards and we have a good team here,” said Carew.
“I’d be disappointed we didn’t stop the Antrim runners. We should stop them higher up the field but we’re coming away with a six-point win - we would have taken that with both hands before the game.”
The early indications are that Fitzsimons and Adams would like to continue in the Antrim job.
“Frank and I will have a good think and we’ll meet with the county board,” said Adams.
“It’s their decision but we’d hope to take this team to get ourselves back out of Division Four and push on.
“From an outsider looking in at our year, we’ve been relegated and we’ve been beaten by Donegal and Sligo [in the Championship] and they’d be thinking: ‘That’s really bad’. It’s actually not. And that’s not me backing myself or covering any holes.
“We think we’re too good for Division Four but you have to get yourself out of it. The last time Antrim were in Division Four they stayed there for four years. The vast majority of this squad stayed with us after the Donegal game and they’ll stay for next year too.”
Sligo: A Devaney; R Donovan, E McHugh (0-1), C Harrison; K Cawley, B Egan, J Kelly; A McIntyre, P O’Connor (0-2); N Ewing, M Breheny (0-1 free), N Murphy (0-2); S Coen (0-8, 0-3 frees), P Hughes (0-2), A Marren (0-5, 0-3 frees) Subs: K O’Donnell (0-1) for E McHugh (35 inj), Kyle Cawley for M Breheny (45 inj), G O’Kelly-Lynch for Keelan Cawley (53), S Gilmartin for J Kelly (64), S Henry for P Hughes (68), D Cummins for P O’Connor (69), P Laffey for C Harrison (75)
Yellow cards: K Cawley (35), S Coen (59), N Ewing (61), B Egan (65)
Antrim: C Kerr; C Hamill, P Gallagher, N Delargy; P McBride (1-1), D Lynch, P McAleer; S McVeigh, S Beatty; M Fitzpatrick (1-0), C Murray (0-3), R McCann; CJ McGourty (1-2, 1-0 pen, 0-2 frees), T McCann (0-1), M Sweeney Subs: O Gallagher for R McCann (25), J Dowling for S Beatty (35), R Murray for T McCann (62), B Bradley for CJ McGourty (62)
Blood substitution: K O’Boyle for P McAleer (11 to 35)
Yellow card: C Murray (32), P Gallagher (52), Red cards: J Dowling (43)
Black card: M Sweeney replaced by P Healy (55-55)
Referee: F Kelly (Longford)
Aidan Devaney: A bit nervy under the high ball and indecisive at times but made a fine save to deny Ryan Murray a late goal. Gets incredible distance with his kick-outs. 6
Ross Donovan: Followed Tomas McCann everywhere and despite coughing up one score to the Antrim forward, he was touch-tight there after and won this duel. 7
Eoin McHugh: Stole forward to bag an important first half point. Pulled up with a bad calf injury just before half-time and looks set for a long period on the sidelines. 6
Charlie Harrison: Had his troubles with CJ McGourty in the first half but had a much better second half and pushed forward on a number of occasions. Solid display. 7
Keelan Cawley: A yellow card was the sum total of his first half display and was walking a tightrope in the second half and was duly replaced. 5
Brendan Egan: Had periods on Matthew Fitzpatrick and had some difficulty containing the Antrim attacker. Had a better second half, despite a booking. 6
John Kelly: Looks a fine player and a real asset to this Sligo team. The youngster is extremely composed in possession and his passing and vision was a glowing feature of Sligo’s performance. 8
Adrian McIntyre: Anchored the midfield really well and stopped several Antrim attacks with his good tackling and excellent positional sense. Has a great understanding with his midfield partner Patrick O’Connor. 7.5
Patrick O’Connor: Still an U21, the talented midfielder was a contender for man-of-the-match. Antrim had no answer to him. Hit two fine scores off either foot in the first half and was the pick of the midfield sector. 8
Neil Ewing: Every team needs a Neil Ewing. A foot soldier who puts his body on the line. Emptied the tank and did the simple things well. 6.5
Martin Breheny: A quite subdued display from the usually all-action centre-forward. Took a heavy hit from Jack Dowling and his evening was over. 5
Niall Murphy: An injury doubt in the build-up, Sligo’s top scorer found Declan Lynch a sticky marker in the opening exchanges before Kevin O'Boyle stuck tight to him. But still posted a score in each half. 6
STAR MAN: Stephen Coen: Conor Hamill kept him quiet in the first half but then the St Mary’s corner-forward cut loose in the second half and ended as man-of-the-match. Great movement. 8.5
Pat Hughes: The big target man isn’t going to get Sligo many scores but he does a fine fetching job for the attack. Drifted out the field quite a bit and got two late points to put the icing on Sligo’s cake. 6
Adrian Marren: Ended the day with 0-5 and was good in both halves for Sligo. A reliable free-taker and doesn’t need a lot of space to cause damage as Antrim found to their cost in the second period. 7
Kevin O’Donnell: Came in for the injured Eoin McHugh for the second half and bagged a nice point. 6
Kyle Cawley: Entered for the injured Mark Breheny and did well. 6
Gerard O’Kelly-Lynch: One defensive lapse almost gifted Antrim a second half goal. 5
Stephen Gilmartin: Not on long enough to be rated.
Stephen Henry: Not on long enough to be rated.
Darragh Cummins: Not on long enough to be rated.
Peter Laffey: Not on long enough to be rated.
Chris Kerr: A couple of first half kick-outs went astray but the St Gall’s man is much more confident in varying them than 12 months ago. No saves of note to make. 6
Conor Hamill: Spent most of the afternoon trying to nail jelly in the form of Stephen Coen. Did well in the first half before Sligo attacked from all angles in the second period. An encouraging first season. 6
Patrick Gallagher: One of Antrim’s better performers against Donegal, the Glenavy man was drawn out the field by Pat Hughes. Decent in possession but committed a few fouls in the scoring zone. 5.5
Niall Delargy: Had a decent game and always tried to get involved in the play. Full of commitment but had too many holes to plug in the second period. 5.5
Patrick McBride: Probably Antrim’s most consistent player in 2017. A couple of mistakes in his game but made some penetrating runs. Kept going right to the last and grabbed a late 1-1. Excellent fitness levels. 7.5
Declan Lynch: The Lamh Dhearg man had a good year. Found himself inside on Sligo danger man Niall Murphy and did well before being shifted to a couple of different opponents. 6
Paddy McAleer: Took a heavy hit in the 11th minute and didn’t return until the end of the first half. The injury seemed to take its toll on him. 5
Sean McVeigh: A gallant effort and kept going right to the end but wasn’t able to break tackles or stop the Sligo runners coming through. Found Patrick O'Connor to be a handful. 5
Stephen Beatty: The ‘Rossa man made a bright start at midfield making one great catch. A couple of things didn’t go right for him and he was rather harshly replaced before the break. 5
Matthew Fitzpatrick: The St John’s man might have lost possession a few times but he is Antrim’s greatest attacking threat. Can beat a man so easily and lobbed the ball into the Sligo net in the second half. Can be the leader of this Antrim team next season. 8
Conor Murray: Suspended for the Donegal game, the Lamh Dhearg was on fire in the first half hitting three brilliant points. Picked up a yellow card and seemed to use up all his energy in the first 35 minutes. 6.5
Ruairi McCann: Never got into his stride and was sacrificed after 25 minutes. 5
CJ McGourty: Confident in possession in the opening stages and hit 1-2 from placed balls but was held scoreless from play by Charlie Harrison. Missed a couple of frees he’d normally convert. 6
Tomas McCann: Looked sharp in the opening half and fired over a super point off his weaker left foot but Ross Donovan soon got to grips with the Ca&v????P?&?7vVV?&WfW'FVB&6?F?27vVWW.( ?2&?R?'Bg&??R?Gv??W"?V?W26??V?W2v2??v??F?R?&??FVfV?RvV???6???2v?F??26V6?B??&?6?6&B?`?V'3??Wf???( ?&?S?&??7V"f?FG???W"?F?R6&v??FVfV?W"??B?6?6?'W"F??RF?Bv??BF?Vv??&?VB?'?F?v?F?f?7V??'&?f?v&B&Vf?R????B?F?R7F???`?vV?v?v?W#??FR'&?f?F?F?R6WB?F?2?V"?6?Rf?????2??F?R?&??GF6??v?F?RV??F?B4?6?fW'FVB?`?6?F????2?Vg??B??&?'&V?V?V?VB&VB6&B?2?6?6?&W6V?R&???Ff?V?v2?76VB?P???'&???'?G'V?FVB?2?V"?BGv?6?v?G2?v??v?V?R6????c"??FW2?`?&V??'&F?F?R7Bv?( ?2??v2'W7?v?V?R6???'WB6?v?vW&R'V??&??BF?B7FvR?P?WFW"?V??6???f??&?7vVV??6?v?vW&R?VG??&??'?F?V?P??2?