Antrim's Joe McDonagh Cup campaign hangs by a thread after Westmeath defeat
Joe McDonagh Cup Round Four: Westmeath 2-19 Antrim 1-20
WHEN Terence McNaughton emerged from the Antrim changing room it was impossible for his shoulders to be any more hunched.
There are gut-wrenching defeats and then there is this. Dejection was an understatement as Antrim's Joe McDonagh Cup hopes hung by a thread after suffering their second consecutive defeat in the competition.
Two weeks ago, Laois beat them by a point. On Saturday, Westmeath beat them by two to seal their place in this season’s inaugural final.
Antrim can still join them in the July 1 decider but they will need to beat Kerry next weekend in Cushendall and hope Westmeath can do them a favour by winning in Carlow to finish second.
With Michael Ryan’s men already qualified, the smart money is on Carlow joining them.
The Antrim hurlers mounted the mother of all second half comebacks in sunny Cusack Park on Saturday afternoon.
It was the kind of display that deserved more than a two-point defeat.
Trailing by eight points at half-time and being totally outplayed by some beautifully precise hurling from Westmeath, the visitors emerged for the second half and played with incredible heart and skill to claw their way back into a nerve-shredding encounter.
The Antrim hurlers put a miserable first half behind them by hitting 1-6 without reply at the restart to edge in front by a point after 54 pulsating minutes [1-16 to 2-12].
Allan Devine’s point a minute later was Westmeath’s first of the second period.
Thereafter, it was nip and tuck right into stoppage-time before Niall Mitchell and a Devine ’65 finished off the visitors.
Antrim won the second half 1-10 to 0-7 – but they left Mullingar regretting the devastating concession of two first-half goals.
Neil McManus, who was Antrim’s best player for the umpteenth time this year, missed a tricky free to level the tie before the nerveless Devine slung over Westmeath’s insurance point from a ’65 in the 73rd minute.
“It’s hard to take that we didn’t get a break in the game,” said McNaughton.
“All year it’s been like that. In close games you’re looking for that wee rub of the green and a referee’s decision. That game just seems to be the story of our year.
“Nobody went out to play badly or make mistakes and I thought we showed heart, we showed fight. We didn’t lie down and die which is always a positive. If a team keeps knocking they’ll get there eventually.”
The square ball rule, particularly in hurling, should be ditched – or at least radically changed.
With five minutes remaining Conor McCann slapped Simon McCrory’s long puck into the Westmeath net, but the major - that would have put the visitors three points up - was chalked off as the Creggan man was adjudged to have entered the square.
The decision – like most square balls in hurling – was complete and utter guesswork by the umpires behind the Westmeath goal.
“The square ball rule in hurling is a stupid rule. It always has been a stupid rule,” said McNaughton. “Anybody who ever played the game thinks it’s a stupid rule.
“Conor McCann followed the ball from the 21-yard line. When the ball was struck he was out on the 21-yard line… We just can’t get the breaks. We can’t fault the players, they tried, they made mistakes, particularly in the first half.”
Antrim’s one big flaw in the first half was their distribution out of defence.
The vast majority of Antrim’s half-hit clearances were gobbled up by Westmeath sweeper Paul Greville and wing-back Liam Varley – both of whom shared three points between them.
Both defenders found their forwards with some excellent passes, but the Antrim defence greatly assisted their hosts in amassing a first-half 2-12 tally.
In the 14th minute, Paddy Burke’s clearance was intercepted before Westmeath midfielder Eoin Price broke clear to shoot.
Ryan Elliott made a stunning save but the rebound fell to the unmarked Ciaran Coyle who couldn’t miss from close range, which left the scores level 1-3 to 0-6. And on the cusp of half-time the impressive Niall O’Brien got clear of two Antrim defenders to ripple the net to put his side 2-10 to 0-9 in front.
Antrim’s inside forwards of Ciaran Clarke, Conor Johnston and Eddie McCloskey never got a decent pass in a miserable opening half.
But the interval proved a momentum changer. Enter Dunloy’s precocious attacker Keelan Molloy and everything changed.
The youngster may be built like a jockey’s whip, but he can hurl.
Molloy latched onto a break on the right flank before racing free to hammer the ball low past ‘keeper Paddy Carroll.
Conor McCann, posted to full-forward in the second half, hit a gutsy 64th minute point that summed up Antrim’s gallantry.
The stats may show Antrim only hit three wides in the second half, but they also landed numerous efforts into the ‘keeper’s arms that ultimately cost them.
In between times, Neil McManus carried the fight to Westmeath as he played with the defiant might of two men. But, for all of Antrim’s heroics, the team still relies too heavily on the Cushendall centre-forward.
“He’s a leader. He’s been an outstanding player all year. I’m glad he’s an Antrim man,” said McNaughton.
John ‘Rocky’ Dillon was superb at full-back for Antrim, while Ryan Elliott made another incredible save in the 63rd minute. Conor McCann and David Kearney also did well as Antrim's work-rate went through the roof in the second half.
But Westmeath proved they are a quality outfit.
Beaten in the Division 2A final by Carlow earlier this season, all six of their forwards scored from play on Saturday and they coped with a late red card handed to corner-back Brendan Doyle.
Now, Antrim will be pinning their hopes on their conquerors doing them a favour in Carlow next weekend.
Westmeath selector Michael Walsh said afterwards: “I know Michael Ryan [manager] and myself are very competitive people. Any match you play you have to go out and win it.
“There’s going to be a three-week gap to the final… Carlow beat us handy in the League final. Maybe they’ll be too good for us again, I don’t know. Of course we’ll try and win but Carlow are an exceptionally good team."
Walsh, though, was keen to praise both sets of players after an incredible game.
“The quality of the match was unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a testament to everybody involved.”
Nobody who was in Cusack Park on Saturday afternoon would dispute Walsh’s glowing appraisal.
But it comes as no consolation to Antrim.
Westmeath: P Carroll; S Power, T Coyle, B Boyle; L Varley (0-2), P Greville (0-1), D McNicholas; E Price, J Boyle; A Clarke (0-1), R Greville (0-1), N O’Brien (1-2); A Devine (0-7, 0-3 frees, 0-3 ’65), N Mitchell (0-3), C Doyle (1-2) Subs: J Gilligan for J Boyle (55), D Clinton for C Doyle (61)
Yellow cards: B Boyle (39 & 66), T Doyle (48), J Gilligan (59)
Red cards: B Boyle (66)
Antrim: R Elliott; A Graffin, J Dillon (0-1), C McKinley; S McCrory, P Burke (0-1), D Kearney; J McNaughton, E Campbell (0-1); C McCann (0-2), N McManus (0-13, 0-7 frees), N Elliott (0-1); E McCloskey, C Johnston (0-1), C Clarke Subs: K Molloy (1-0) for E McCloskey (h/t), D McKinley for J McNaughton (46), D McCloskey for N Elliott (70)
Blood substitution: R McCambridge for S McCrory (30-32)
Yellow cards: S McCrory (4), J McNaughton (45)
Referee: R McGann (Clare)