Antrim hurlers produce the goods to slay Kerry in Joe McDonagh opener
Joe McDonagh Cup Round One: Antrim 3-19 Kerry 0-14
AS performances go, this was as good as it gets for the Antrim hurlers.
A 14-point drilling of a Kerry side that they’ve failed to master in recent seasons exceeded all expectations in sunny Dunloy on Saturday evening.
Giving away significant height and weight advantages – as they always do to Kerry – Antrim won this Joe McDonagh Cup opener because they had better stick men and an unquenchable desire to make their mark on the Championship stage.
There’s a lot to be said for warm weather training too.
In preparation for Saturday’s crucial opener, the Antrim players spent four days in Portugal – described by Ryan McCambridge as “the hardest training I’ve ever done in my life” – so no stone was left unturned by manager Neal Peden and his backroom team.
“Portugal gelled us – there is no question about that,” said Peden, who dedicated Saturday’s win to his mentor and former St John’s club-mate Seany Burns, who passed away earlier in the week.
“When you’re sitting eating with guys and you’re with them all the time, you’re playing their music in the gym and you’re talking to them all the time, it makes a difference.”
Goals from Ciaran Clarke, Nicky McKeague and Nigel Elliott – the latter two coming in the second half - underlined Antrim’s superiority on Saturday evening.
Played in front of a sizeable crowd, Kerry lost defender John Buckley in the 57th minute to a straight red card after an off-the-ball incident involving Mattie Donnelly.
But the visitors had imploded long before they were reduced to 14 men and couldn’t use their numerical disadvantage as an excuse for a surprisingly limp performance.
Kerry defeated Antrim in Cushendall last year which sent the Ulstermen into a McDonagh Cup relegation play-off and on the heavy sod of Corrigan Park back in January, the Kingdom ruined any aspirations Antrim had of winning promotion back to Division 1B.
Fielding 11 players that were involved in the League clash at Corrigan Park, Kerry couldn’t find any rhythm in their play on the firmer ground in Dunloy.
With a strong breeze at their backs in the opening half, the visitors played too conservatively and didn’t use their height advantage that might have unnerved the Antrim back-line.
Instead, Kerry packed their defence in a bid to nullify Antrim’s fleet-footed corner-forwards Ciaran Clarke and Eoin O’Neill – and, to that end, they were successful in the opening 20 minutes – but their own attack suffered as a result.
Ballycastle clubman Conor Boyd performed the defensive sweeper duties to a tee, Stephen Rooney and Phelim Duffin gave nothing away in their respective corners and after a slow start John ‘Rocky’ Dillon tied up Jack Goulding who’d caused all sorts of problems in the League clash.
But key to Antrim’s success was the way in which their forwards and midfielders tackled Kerry high up the field.
All six of Antrim’s forwards had scored from play by the 32nd minute – but it was their insatiable work-rate, their hooking and blocking that really unsettled Kerry.
Antrim trailed 0-3 to no score after four minutes but they clawed their way back to level the tie in the 31st minute, 0-6 to 0-6, after Neil McManus’s clever reverse pass allowed captain Conor McCann to fire over.
At that point Kerry were showing distress signals. They simply couldn't cope with their hosts’ intensity and were far too reliant on Shane Conway’s excellence from frees.
In the 32nd minute, Ciaran Clarke accepted a James McNaughton’s pass down the left side and buried the ball low and beyond Kerry’s ‘keeper Martin Stackpoole to put Antrim ahead 1-6 to 0-7 for the first time.
Conway’s frees kept the scoreboard ticking over for Kerry but Eoin O’Neill’s ability to win his own turnover and point in first-half injury time to put Antrim 1-7 to 0-9 up was more evidence of Kerry’s woes.
In the opening 10 minutes of the second half, Antrim out-scored Kerry 1-4 to 0-2 to put more daylight between the sides.
Martin Stackpoole made a horrendous error at Corrigan Park in January that enabled Eoin O’Neill to ripple Kerry’s net - and he made another blooper on Saturday after Nicky McKeague’s long range effort on 41 minutes was always dropping short, but the sloithar bobbled over Stackpoole’s stick and into the net.
It was game over at that point. Neil McManus assumed free-taking duties and hit back-to-back scores before Clarke jinked onto his left side to fire over a brilliant score on 55 minutes to put Antrim six ahead.
Keelan Molloy, playing on home soil, showed his class with three points from play – two coming in the closing stages while his Cuchullains club-mate and substitute Nigel Elliott showed two Kerry defenders a clean pair of heels to slap home Antrim’s third goal in the 64th minute.
David Kearney, Joe Maskey and Kevin Rice also registered late scores when introduced from what was an impressive Antrim bench.
Afterwards, Peden didn’t disguise the importance of the result.
“It was a big, big day for us,” said the Antrim manager.
“It was the way we drove on, we just didn’t take it at two or three up – we kept at them. People talk about the wind; it’s a placebo effect. It’s just a wind.
“Sometimes you think it’s going to win you the match. But it wasn’t just about the wind – we went out and played a certain style of hurling that got us the win.
“You could see when we got the ball into space we were the most agile and faster team. We were able to cope at the back too – we were solid and strong and we coped with that high ball, the breaking ball and getting under it quickly.”
Kerry boss Fintan O’Connor, who spent two years with Derek McGrath’s Waterford side, bemoaned his side’s poor preparation for their Joe McDonagh Cup opener.
“This isn’t whingeing or crying in any way but in Kerry there were five rounds of Championship in April, so the first night we had our lads was last Wednesday night. We knew that was a possibility and I suppose it was a perfect storm insofar as the teams that involved our players kept winning and got to the two finals, whereas last year they were knocked out in the first or second round.
“I think the GAA needs to look at that disparity of preparation. That’s not in any way sour grapes as I congratulated Antrim and I know they put a massive effort in.”
The tests get tougher now for Antrim. Laois, who ousted Offaly in a thrilling McDonagh opener on Saturday evening, are next up in Portlaoise on Saturday evening.
Antrim: R Elliott; S Rooney, J Dillon, P Duffin; P Burke (0-1), C Boyd, M Donnelly; N McManus (0-4 frees), N McKeague (1-0); J McNaughton (0-2 frees), R McCambridge (0-1); K Molloy (0-3); Ciaran Clarke (1-1), Conor McCann (0-2), Eoin O'Neill (0-2) Subs: N Elliott (1-0) for J McNaughton (48), D Kearney (0-1) for N McKeague (63), J Maskey (0-1) for E O’Neill (63), D McCloskey for C Clarke (67), K Rice (0-1) for C McCann (68)
Blood substitution: J Dillon (72 minutes not replaced)
Yellow card: S Rooney (39)
Kerry: M Stackpoole; J Buckley, J O'Connor: E Murphy; S Weir, B Murphy, T O'Connor (0-1); C Harty (0-1), J Goulding; S Conway (0-10 frees), M O'Leary (0-2), J Conway; D Goggin, M Boyle, P Boyle Subs: M Slattery for P Boyle (51), P Kelly for C Harty (59), D Carroll for J Conway (63), G Dooley for J Goulding (65)
Yellow cards: T O’Connor (25), B Murphy (29), P Boyle (47), M O’Leary (53)
Red card: J Buckley (57)
Referee: Liam Gordon (Galway)