James McNaughton hat-trick sees Antrim beat Kildare and reach Kehoe Cup final
Kehoe Cup semi-final: Antrim Kildare
From Andy Watters at the National Sports Centre, Dublin
A JAMES McNaughton hat-trick saw Antrim come through a competitive early season test in Abbotstown yesterday to book their place in next weekend's Kehoe Cup final against Westmeath in Mullingar.
The skilful Loughgiel forward made the most of some generosity in the Kildare defence twice early in the first half before killing the game off late in the second after the Lilywhites had mounted a sustained comeback.
He finished with 3-9 to his credit and was the outstanding performer in an encouraging display for an Antrim side that looked a class above their opponents in the first half and went in the break with a 3-10 to 0-8 lead.
With the job almost done, the Glensmen took their foot off the gas after the interval and Kildare had closed the gap to six points before Antrim found their second wind and emerged with a deserved 10-point win.
Next Sunday's final will smooth their transition from pre-season mode to a promotion push in Division 2A which starts against Kerry on January 27. New manager Neal Peden was delighted to secure the extra game and he made the journey north reflecting on a worthwhile test for his young side who are without their players from Ulster champions Cushendall as well as St John's pair Ciaran and Conor Johnston.
Yesterday, goalkeeper Ryan Elliott, who had played for Ulster University in the Conor McGurk Cup final the previous day, impressed behind a solid full-back line, Antrim's midfielders worked hard and all six starting forwards registered scores.
“We came here looking for another game, another really competitive challenge and that's what we're going to get so we're really pleased,” said Peden.
“Our first half effort was phenomenal against the breeze. We have worked so hard on our structure and everybody's energy levels were high. We could see things were working for us that we've done in training; the training came out there.
“We lost our way a bit in the second half but we grafted and the goal James got kicked us on again and we got those vital scores. Kildare weren't going to come and lie down, they were ready to come at us, they hit us hard and they put us through a physical battle.
“We have a lot of young lads and that was their first real, physical county battle and we're pleased that they have got that now. We know we'll get another one next weekend against Westmeath, it's going to be another massive task for us.”
Meanwhile, Peden's opposite number David Herity – a five-time Liam MacCarthy Cup winner with Kilkenny - took what positives he could from the loss. His side battled to the finish but defensive lapses left them chasing the game from the first minute.
“After a couple of minutes we had 2-1 conceded so it was a sucker-punch straightaway to be seven points down at the start of a game,” he said.
“We got it back to six in the second half but Antrim showed their bit of class to pull away again. For us it's about staying awake from the off… They try and see what the opposition are like and then they start kicking into gear but when you're playing against the likes of Antrim, who are that step up, they'll kill you off in those first few minutes. Antrim blew us away and those first five minutes and unfortunately that was it for most of the game.”
Nigel Elliott had a point on the board inside 30 seconds before McNaughton pounced on some indecisive defending in the Lilywhite full-back line to tap in Antrim's first goal after Ciaran Clarke had made ground down the right.
Kildare goalkeeper Mark Doyle - the hero of his side's win the previous weekend against Wicklow – fumbled Keelan Molloy's mishit and gifted James O'Connell another goal in the next attack and so the Glensmen led 2-1 to no score inside the opening five minutes.
“Six points for nothing,” grumbled a Kildare supporter in the well-populated stand and his mood didn't improve as McNaughton latched onto John Dillon's ball out of defence, turned his marker Martin Fitzgerald and sent the sliothar fizzing over the bar.
Ryan Casey and Bryan Byrne, who was at the forefront of Kildare's second half comeback, registered points for Herity's men but by the midway point in the half Simon McCrory, who read the game well and used possession accurately from centre half-back, fed Elliott for his second score and Antrim were coasting with a lead of 2-6 to 0-3.
The Ulstermen worked hard for each other and hoovered up break after break. Elliott and Matthew Donnelly combined to harass Caolan Smith, win the ball and send McNaughton clear. The pacey forward raced goalward and smashed in a shot that burst through Doyle's attempted block at the near post.
Points from Molloy (two), Clarke and a McNaughton free left Antrim 3-10 to 0-8 ahead at the break and looking nailed on for a place in the final.
Whatever Herity, perhaps borrowing a few phrases from legendary Cats' manager Brian Cody, said to his charges at half-time worked because they started the second period with an intensity and determination that was missing in the first period.
A Byrne free opened the scoring before Caolan Smith's ‘goal' was ruled out for ‘square ball' and, although Nicky McKeague and McNaughton registered points for Antrim, the Glensmen found themselves denied the space and time they had enjoyed in the first period.
James Burke and two Byrne frees left it 3-13 to 0-12 before Byrne slalomed through the Antrim defence to smash over another Kildare point. McNaughton's free was all the Glensmen could muster.
The Ulstermen were unable to hold the ball up in attack and were out-worked in midfield as Kildare picked off the next four points – three from the outstanding Byrne and one from midfielder Paul Divilly - which reduced the arrears to six points (3-14 to 0-17) with 15 minutes remaining.
Kildare supporters were cursing their first half mistakes as they reflected on what might have been but Antrim, who also hit seven wides in the opening half, found the extra gear they needed and kicked for home.
McNaughton broke the Kildare scoring sequence with a free and, although James Burke cancelled it out, the lively half-forward capitalized on the space the Lilywhites left at the back to race forward, pick his spot past Doyle and complete his first hat-trick for Antrim.
That was that and the Glensmen picked off five points on the spin – two more for McNaughton, one for McKeague and two for lively substitute Donal McKinley - to rebuild their dominant position.
Kildare finished with a goal and a point but the game was dead and buried by then and the Antrim players left the pitch with bumps, bruises and tired legs but content with their efforts. Next Sunday will be another battle but that's top of the wish list with that Division 2B opener against Kerry on the horizon.
Antrim: R Elliott; S Rooney, J Dillon, P Duffin; R Molly, S McCrory, M Donnelly; C McCann, C McHugh; N Elliott (0-2), J McNaughton (3-9, 0-4 frees, 0-1 65), N McKeague (0-3); J O'Connell (1-0), K Molloy 0-3, 0-1 free), C Clarke (0-1)
Subs: K Rice for Clarke (ht), D McKinley (0-2) for O'Connell (38), C Boyd for McHugh (52), C Patterson for Duffin (62), J McGoldrick for McCann (70)
Kildare: M Doyle; C Dervan, J Doran, J Dolan; S Christiansen, M Fitzgerald, D Cahill; P Divilly (0-2), A Kelly; B Cormack, B Byrne (0-10, 0-7 frees), B Deay; C Dowling, C Smith (1-2), R Casey (0-1)
Subs: J Burke (0-2) for A Kelly (22), K Whelan for Cormack (34), R Kelly for Dowling (34), P Feerick for Cahill (56), R Boran for Casey (56)
Yellow card: Cahill (33)