Ruthless Antrim hurlers show Kildare no sympathy in Joe McDonagh Cup shoot-out
Joe McDonagh Cup promotion/relegation play-off: Antrim 3-23 Kildare 1-17
THE Kildare footballers may have been dancing in the evening sunshine down in Newbridge on Saturday night – but spare a thought for their hurlers who had to absorb a terrible injustice up in Armagh a few hours earlier.
It wasn’t that they were on the receiving end of some bad refereeing decisions that cost them their chance of promotion - it was the fact that they were in Armagh at all playing a game they should never have been forced to play, just seven days after lifting the Christy Ring Cup in Croke Park.
The Antrim hurlers were equally miffed at having to feature in a relegation/promotion play-off as they finished second from bottom, with Meath below them.
But the GAA, in their wisdom, shifted the goalposts by announcing a new five-team Joe McDonagh Cup in 2019 instead of sticking with the even number of six, which worked a treat this season.
If Cian O’Neill successfully articulated the grievance foisted upon the Kildare footballers last week, hurling manager Joe Quaid was equally eloquent.
After losing to a ruthlessly efficient Antrim side on Saturday, Quaid said: “You’re talking about disrespect. We played in an All-Ireland final last Saturday. There wasn’t a parade, there wasn’t a band, there wasn’t the national anthem, no shaking hands with the other players. There was nothing.
“It was like going out playing a club match, throw the ball in and away you go. Don’t talk to me about respect or the lack of respect they [GAA] have for these teams.
“Look, it’s the same for London, it’s the same for the Nicky Rackard teams, it’s the same for everybody once you go beyond the top level, the GAA have no respect.”
Quaid felt Kildare should have gained automatic promotion after winning the Christy Ring but hopes the county’s hurling committee will lobby “in the strongest possible terms” to seeing Kildare granted a place in next season’s Joe McDonagh Cup despite Saturday’s 12-point defeat.
“The amount of work that’s going on in Kildare at the moment is probably the same as any other county,” Quaid added.
“How can we attract young fellas back in – even some of the young fellas we have this year - to go back and try and win the Christy Ring again? They already have a Christy Ring medal.
“The lure of America, the lure of Australia. It’s there. The world has become very small. Are they up for the fight come November, December, January?”
The Kildare boss also pointed to the bizarre changes to next season’s other tiered competitions in hurling.
“In the Christy Ring, Armagh and Mayo are going down. Like, Mayo are playing Nicky Rackard and yet they’re playing 2A hurling because they got promoted out of 2B. It’s stupid stuff.
“The GAA are looking after the elite teams. I don’t know if they’ll ever change.”
In the searing heat in the Cathedral City on Saturday, Kildare got off to a flyer when Paul Divilly grabbed a third minute goal to put Antrim on the back foot.
It took a while for the Saffrons to settle but when they did the Lilywhites couldn’t live with them.
Neil McManus, Antrim’s evergreen leader, ran through the Kildare defence to hammer home two majors in the 24th and 35th minutes, while the industrious attacker Conor McCann collected a fine Ryan McCambridge pass to ripple Kildare’s net in the 33rd minute.
Antrim led 3-9 to 1-9 at the break with Dunloy’s Keelan Molloy making scoring points from any distance or angle look easy.
“I watched the boys at half-time and the tank was empty,” said Quaid.
“We shouldn’t have been here in the first place. Antrim shouldn’t have to be here either.
“If Antrim had lost today I guarantee you Antrim would have been playing Joe McDonagh next year. There is too much money going into Belfast – and Antrim should be playing at that level. Why did the GAA want to relegate two teams from the Joe McDonagh? Relegate the bottom team – promote the top team [in Christy Ring].
“Antrim were a puck of a ball away from the final and they end up in a relegation match. Something has to give.”
Divilly offered stout resistance in the second half for Kildare, tagging on a few more points while James Burke – who overcame a life-threatening bout of meningitis earlier in the season – excelled from placed balls.
But Antrim’s hurling was on a different level.
Molloy clipped over three more points, while Nigel Elliott and John Dillon split Kildare’s posts. On the day, though, Kildare couldn’t handle McManus who produced his umpteenth man-of-the-match display in saffron this season.
As the Armagh and Clare football supporters filed into the ground for the upcoming All-Ireland Qualifier meeting, they were treated to one of the best scores you’ll ever see in hurling.
Conor McKinley’s clever ball out of defence found Eoghan Campbell. The Cushendall man breezed down the stand side before slipping the ball inside to his club-mate Paddy Burke.
Burke then fired the ball at waist height to substitute James McNaughton who caught it on the run before splitting Kildare’s posts.
McNaughton’s score was a thing of beauty that drew warm applause from the expanding crowd in the Athletic Grounds.
But with the GAA ensuring the Joe McDonagh Cup remains one of its best-kept secrets, there will be no archive of this ultimate team score.
Afterwards, Dominic McKinley, Antrim’s joint boss, was relieved to get the win to secure their McDonagh Cup status next season, but he urged the GAA to promote Kildare.
“Let’s get Kildare promoted and let’s get on with it. Why mess it up?” said ‘Woody’.
“Can you imagine Kildare trying to motivate their players for next year? It’s so unfair.”
McKinley doesn’t know whether he will be involved next season but hoped the group has improved under the current management's watch.
“Our game-management, from everybody, had to be better in the League and the Joe McDonagh was the same. We fell short by one or two wee things. Looking forward, irrespective of who’s there or what’s there, those things have to improve.”
As the Armagh footballers galloped onto the pitch to take centre stage, the last word went to Joe Quaid.
“Do you know what, I refuse to let today cloud what we achieved last week.
“What made the year was not winning the Christy Ring Cup but to see James Burke who was at death’s door with bacterial meningitis on Good Friday with only minutes to live - and he was the last man up to lift the Christy Ring Cup. That’s what’s going to stick in my head, not getting sun burnt in Armagh.”
Antrim: R Elliott; A Graffin, J Dillon (0-1), R McCambridge (0-1); P Burke, M Donnelly, C McKinley; S McCrory, E Campbell; K Molloy (0-6), N McManus (2-10, 0-1 ’65, 0-1 free), N Elliott (0-2); C Carson, C McCann (1-1), E O’Neill (0-1) Subs: D McKinley for R McCambridge (50), J McNaughton (0-1) for M Donnelly (63), E McCloskey for E O’Neill (65), S Rooney for S McCrory (70), D McCloskey for C Carson (73)
Yellow cards: R McCambridge (12), P Burke (45)
Kildare: P McKenna; C Gordon, J Doran, P Sullivan; E O’Neill, M Moloney, K Whelan (0-2); N O’Muineachain; J Burke (0-7, 0-6 frees), P Divilly (1-6, 0-2 frees), B Deay (0-1); M Delaney, M Fitzgerald, J Sheridan Subs: D Cahill for K Whelan (53), C Bonus (0-1) for B Deay (53), S Gainey for J Burke (57), B Cormack for M Delaney (60), S Walsh for E O’Neill (68)
Yellow cards: B Deay (10)
Referee: D Hughes (Carlow)