Walsh Cup clash a great way to test Antrim hurlers says Terence McNaughton
Walsh Cup: Meath 1-17 Antrim 0-19
THE Christmas spirit was still evident in the Antrim dressing room despite this narrow Walsh Cup defeat to Meath at Trim last Saturday.
"The scoreboard was wrong," an Antrim official quipped jovially, a reference no doubt to the 2016 Christy Ring Cup final, the last time the counties clashed.
It probably summed up the Glensmen's mood.
For once the outcome wasn't the most important aspect, something joint manager Terence McNaughton iterated.
"This competition saves you from organising matches before the league that is what it is. It's good quality games against good quality opposition.
"It's an excellent way to test out players without life and death situations. You don't have to win games like this, it is not win at all costs.
"It's all about giving lads a run out and giving them game time, experimenting and learning something from it.
"The lads showed a good attitude especially in the second half.
"The results of games like this are immaterial, we have Dublin next and we will try a few new things against them as well."
With the sides level on nine different occasions a draw seemed the likely outcome and Antrim looked to have snatched a share of the spoils when talisman Neil McManus replied to a James Toher point for his ninth score of the game deep into added time.
However the game took one final twist as Meath went on a final attack and Neil Heffernan capped a fine display by snatching the winning score on 74 minutes.
"We weren't happy with the first half, it was a poor first half but we were pleased with the second half we worked hard to settle down and got in some hurling," McNaughton continued.
"We made a few changes that worked in the second half, the first game of the year and it was a good workout.
"We will be playing at a level this year where everyone else will be at least as good if not better than us. We couldn't ask for a tougher start to the league than against All-Ireland champions Galway.
"This is where we want to be however, as a player you would want to be on the same field as Joe Canning. We are under no illusions about the task ahead and it is not going to happen overnight.
"It may not happen in our watch but we are trying to get back up to a level we were at in former years, there is years work ahead."
Meath will also be plying their trade at a higher level in the league in 2018, seeking to build on the success of the last couple of seasons.
They probably had a greater desire for victory in this one, it was manager's Nick Fitzgerald's first game at the helm, with a backroom team that includes multiple All-Ireland winners, Kilkenny duo Martin Comerford and Michael Kavanagh.
The hosts made a bright start with early points from the returning James Toher and newly appointed captain James Kelly before Conor McCann fired over for the Saffrons.
It was 0-4 each after 18 minutes and Antrim took a grip on proceedings after that as they opened up a five point advantage.
McManus, who finished with a personal tally of nine points, Conor Johnson and Eoin O'Neill all hit fine scores in that spell of dominance.
However Meath rallied and boosted by a goal from Kelly they worked their way back into contention and a point from Heffernan left it level at the break, 1-9 to 0-12.
With Regan unerring from frees Meath also started better in the second half and by the 51st minute had built up a 1-13 to 0-13 lead.
Successive points from McManus (two) and Conor McKinley helped regain parity before a fine score from Johnson left Antrim in front at a crucial stage.
That lead was short-lived but they regained it again through sub Joe Maskey.
However a dogged home side responded well to eke out the victory.
Meath: S McGann; K Keoghan, S Geraghty, N Weir; E Marsh, D Healy, J Regan (0-7 frees); J Toher (0-2), C O Mealoid; A Forde; J Kelly (1-3), C McCabe (0-1); S Quigley, A Gannon, N Heffernan (0-4).
Subs: J Keena for Quigley (45), J Walsh for O Mealoid (53), S Brennan for Marsh (53), M Cullen for Forde (63).
Yellow cards: Keoghan (24), Toher (58), Keena (65).
Antrim: R Elliott; C Boyd, J Dillon, S Rooney; G Walsh, P Burke, D Kearney; C McKinley (0-1), N McAuley; C McCann (0-2), C Johnson (0-3), N Elliott; E O’Neill (0-2), N McManus (0-9, 0-8 frees), D McCloskey (0-1).
Subs: A Graffin for Boyd (h-t), C O'Connell for R Elliott (h-t), C Carson for McCloskey (46), J Maskey (0-1) for McKinley (52).
Yellow cards: McKinley (48), O'Neill (50), Graffin (73).
Referee: Alfie Devine (Westmeath)