Antrim into Christy Ring final after tough test from Down
Christy Ring Cup semi-final: Antrim 1-24 Down 0-23
IF Antrim go on to win the Christy Ring Cup on June 4 they will remember a rainy day in Loughgiel and how hard Down pushed them in what was an epic semi-final encounter with their old foes.
The Ardsmen left Fr Healy Park wondering how they didn’t win.
Apart from a 10-minute spell at the start of the second half, when the hosts hit 1-6, Down hurled as well if not better than their opponents.
In securing their place at Croke Park next month, Antrim owe a debt of gratitude to two men: their irrepressible forward Ciaran Clarke who split Down’s posts no fewer than 16 times and assisted for Conor Carson’s game-changing major in the 37th minute.
The other person was goalkeeper Chrissy O’Connell. The Loughgiel netminder made a fabulous stoppage-time save to deny Conor Mageean a goal that would have put Down up by a point.
As it was, Clarke (free) and Carson still had time to grab a point apiece to put a bit of daylight between the teams at the final whistle.
With the game slipping from Down’s grasp, they had three players sent off in the closing stages.
James McGrath lashed out at Clarke and received a straight red, moments later Conor O’Neill picked up a second yellow card and late substitute Jordan Doran was shown a straight red after the final whistle.
Antrim’s interim manager Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley admitted that he would need a bit more time to actually make sense of Saturday’s dramatic semi-final.
“I’d need to sit down and have a long good think,” he sighed.
“That’s what you expect against Down, even when I played. It was always nip and tuck, a lot of aggression and energy about it.
“The first half in particular we weren’t at it and we were lucky to be as close as we were.
“But, to be fair to our players, I thought we were in control in the second half but Down kept getting scores when we scored.
“That’s one thing that would concern us. But I thought our subs at half-time changed the game a great deal.
“It shows you when injuries clear up we have three or four boys that can add a lot to it.”
The home side were out-of-sorts in the first half and, as ‘Woody’ acknowledged, should have been more than 0-13 to 0-7 behind.
Their back-line simply couldn’t contain attackers Danny Toner and Conor Woods who mined 10 points between them in a classy first half display from the visitors.
But the vanquished will have nightmares about those opening 10 minutes of the second period when Antrim hauled themselves back in contention.
Donal Hughes replied for the visitors with two points during Antrim’s purple patch – but when man-of-the-match Ciaran Clarke converted a 45th minute free, Down’s lead was wiped out.
At that point and with a breeze at their backs it looked odds-on that Antrim would cruise the remainder of Saturday’s semi-final. But there is one age-old axiom when Antrim play Down. You don’t get to cruise.
To their eternal credit, the visitors came firing back and edged in front through a Conor O’Prey free in the 62nd minute.
The sides were still level after 70 minutes before impressive substitute Niall McKenna arrowed the ball over Down’s posts for his third point of the day.
And once O’Connell lunged to his right to block Mageean’s goal-bound effort in the 72nd minute, Down were finally beaten.
“It was a great save,” added ‘Woody’. “How we left ourselves so open, I don’t know. It’s something we have to look at. It should never happen.
“But it was an exciting match. It was a good advertisement for Ulster hurling as well and fair play to Down, they were competitive right to the end. They caused us serious problems.”
Disconsolate Down manager Mickey Johnston insisted the better team lost on the day but his players had given Antrim the “fright of their lives”.
“I thought we were the better hurling team,” said the Belfast man.
“We played the better hurling, no doubt about that. Antrim survived off frees.
“We’d two or three great goal chances and missed them. Antrim got a goal out of nothing, scrambled the ball home.”
Johnston added: “We came here to win the game. We didn’t come here to make up the numbers. I think we showed a great style of hurling, we showed tenacity and ability to hurl. There’s just a bit of inexperience in our forward line and you can only get that with time. But, look, that’s Championship hurling. That’s sport.”
Down undoubtedly found weaknesses in the Antrim defence in both halves, with Simon McCrory, Odhran McFadden and Martin Burke holding things together at the back.
Just as he did against Roscommon, Conor Carson proved the game-changer when he slapped the ball to Down’s net from close range after a clever hand-pass from Clarke.
For Down, Toner was exceptional throughout, Woods punched his weight in both defence and attack while Conor O’Prey, Caolan Taggart and Donal Hughes had fine games.
Antrim will now face Meath at Croke Park on June 4, while Down go away and take stock.
“Everybody wants to play in Croke Park,” said ‘Woody’. “I’d say our training will be good over the next two weeks. We’ll not be shouting from the rooftops about this performance but we’re looking forward to playing at Croke Park. That was our short-term goal.”
Antrim: C O’Connell; O McFadden, T McCloskey, C McKinley; S McCrory, N McAuley, M Burke; C Johnston, E Campbell (0-1); E McCloskey (0-1), J Dillon (0-1), N Elliott; C Johnston (0-1), C Carson (1-1), C Clarke (0-16, 0-13 frees, 0-1 65) Subs: J Connolly for N Elliott (h-t), N McKenna (0-3) for J Dillon (h-t), S McAfee for Ciaran Johnston (59) Yellow cards: E McCloskey (1), Conor Johnston (65)
Down: S Keith; M Conlan, P McFlynn, J McManus; C O’Neill, C Taggart (0-3), J McGrath; S Ennis, F Conway; C Mageean, C O’Prey (0-3, 0-2 frees, 0-1 65), D Hughes (0-3); D Toner (0-9, 0-5 frees), Conor Woods (0-4, 0-2 frees), S Nicholson Subs: C Egan (0-1) for P Flynn (48), B Byers for S Nicholson (58), J Doran for F Conway (66), O McManus for C Taggart (72) Yellow cards: M Conlan (14), C O’Neill (32 & 74), F Conway (35), C Taggart (36), C Mageean (64) Red cards: J McGrath (74), C O’Neill (32, 74), J Doran (after the final whistle)
Referee: D Hughes (Carlow)