Sweet 16 for Antrim as they cruise past Armagh
Ulster Senior Hurling Championship final: Antrim 5-22 Armagh 1-12
ANTRIM'S 16th consecutive Ulster title was practically handed to them five minutes before throw-in at Owenbeg yesterday.
As Armagh skipper David Carvill met his counterpart Simon McCrory in the middle for the toss, the coin came down in James Clarke's hand on the side of Armagh's choosing.
Their pre-arranged decision was to play against the wind, which blew typically strongly towards the Feeny end of the ground. It proved a kamikaze move.
They simply could find no way out of their own half for so much of the opening 35 minutes and found themselves facing an insurmountable 20-point deficit at the interval.
Sylvester McConnell was disappointed by his side's performance and with justification. Having come close to a shock in their National League meeting earlier in the year, they were unable to make this a contest.
There was just such a marked difference in the quality and sharpness of the stickwork of the two teams, with Armagh's quality in that regard showing with their more efficient display into the wind.
Part of it, too, was perhaps that Owenbeg's pitch is just so vast and took the physicality out of it and it allowed Antrim to expose Armagh's defence, particularly in terms of pace.
Conor Johnston was to the fore in that regard, practically unstoppable at times as he hit 3-5 from play.
There were moments from Ciaran Clarke inside as well, most notably his two goal assists, where he dodged towards the endline and then skirted clear to square, first for Neil McManus and then for Johnston.
Armagh simply couldn't find any kind of a platform. A half-back line led by the bustling Paddy Burke in the centre stepped up and dominated the battle on Simon Doherty's puckouts, and there seemed the lack of trust required to try and work their way out short.
It took 43 seconds for Neil McManus to open the scoring and when the first goal arrived on 11 minutes, it put Antrim 1-6 to 0-1 clear, the only Armagh riposte coming from Conor Corvan.
The first green flag was lifted when Ciaran Johnston won a puckout he had no right to and it ended up with Paul Shiels rifling to the net at the other end.
Seconds later, Ciaran Clarke burned Ciaran Clifford for pace along the endline and squared intelligently for McManus to bat home unchallenged at the far post.
At 2-7 to 0-1 after a free from the unerring Maol Connolly, the game was already gone from the underdogs. David Carvill finding his range on the frees was one pick into the rockface but it was like trying to chip a diamond.
He saw a 26th minute effort come down off the post and it fell right into the path of Fiachra Bradley, who bundled it into the net from close range to give some hope to Armagh
They tried putting Cathal Carvill to the edge of the square but on a difficult afternoon for the Na Fianna man, that only put him into contest with John Dillon, who just so happened to be the outstanding defender on the pitch.
The Armoy man was a rock in front of the goal in the second half when the work was that bit more strenuous.
Antrim's third goal came just before the half hour mark when Conor Johnston turned into space and elected not to use the help of a free Neil McManus in front of goal, instead going himself to rifle past his St John's clubmate Doherty.
McManus (twice), Johnston, Ciaran Clarke and Eoghan Campbell all pointed in the final five minutes of the half to leave Antrim 3-16 to 1-2 ahead, the saffron and white ribbons already safe to be tied to the Liam Harvey Cup.
It was a long afternoon for Armagh, much more so than in last year's decider where they kept to within four points until the final 15 minutes before tailing away.
Nathan Curry's move to midfield at half-time helped give them a bit more of an edge and Tiarnan Nevin tried gamely in the half-back line, while Dylan McKenna threatened briefly to be a useful targetman at full-forward but was quickly shut down.
They did dominate the third quarter of the game, hitting seven of the second half's opening eight scores (five of them from David Carvill frees), but the sole interjection at the other end was a fourth goal, and the completion of Conor Johnston's hat-trick.
It was again created by Ciaran Clarke as he seared away from the black shirts and squared for Johnston to neatly meet one-handed on the half volley from in front of an open goal.
Antrim were reduced to 14 men in the middle of Armagh's scoring run when Paddy Burke picked up his second booking in just under ten minutes for a high tackle on Cathal Carvill, which left the Cushendall man with no real excuses.
But even a man down and against the wind, Antrim were able to craft their way out of defence better and hit a run of five straight scores of their own either side of the hour mark.
Into that was thrown a red card for John Corvan, which appeared to be for interfering with Paul Shiels' faceguard, as the game petered out as Ulster finals have sadly tended to do of late.
At this rate, 16 looks nowhere near the end of Antrim's winning provincial run.
Antrim: C O'Connell; S McCrory, J Dillon, S Rooney; C McKinley (0-1), P Burke, Ciaran Johnston; P McGill (0-1), P Shiels (1-0); M Connolly (0-3, 0-2f), C McCann, E Campbell (0-3); Conor Johnston (3-5), N McManus (1-6, 0-1free), C Clarke (0-2)
Subs: D Murphy for McCann (43), R Diamond for Rooney (56), J McNaughton for Connolly (57), C Carson (0-1) for Murphy (60)
Yellow cards: P Burke (44, 52), N McManus (63)
Red card: P Burke (second yellow, 52)
Armagh: S Doherty; C Clifford, N Curry, D Bridges; J Corvan, A McGuinness, T Nevin; F Bradley (1-0), C Devlin; D Carvill (0-7, 0-6frees), C Carvill (0-1), C Corvan (0-3); D Magee (0-1), C Gorman, D McKenna
Subs: O Curry for Bridges (23), P Gaffney for Devlin (23), P McKearney for Bradley (HT)
Yellow cards: J Corvan (31), N Curry (42)
Red card: J Corvan (61)
Referee: J Clarke (Cavan)