Antrim character reigns over Offaly and edges them closer to Joe McDonagh decider
Joe McDonagh Cup Round Three: Offaly 4-18 Antrim 3-23
ANTRIM don’t have many great days – but when they do come around there is nothing sweeter.
Those long suffering Antrim fans that made the arduous journey to Tullamore on Saturday afternoon were the lucky ones.
It felt like Antrim’s emancipation day, when heroes were born and pride was restored – truly restored – to the tattered and torn saffron jersey.
In the immediate aftermath, it felt that seismic.
Of course, the Antrim hurlers need to back up Saturday’s memorable victory over Offaly with another one against Westmeath next weekend to qualify for the Joe McDonagh decider.
When you strip everything away, the glowing parable emerging from Tullamore was simple: hard work pays.
Neal Peden’s players had put the hard yards in.
Antrim had more fitness than Offaly and showed more heart and skill.
This was a triumph of a performance on so many levels.
Character is formed in the dead of winter, on sodden pitches and in eerily quiet gyms - a million miles away from balmy afternoons in Tullamore - and only reveals itself on days like Saturday.
Since the mid-Noughties nobody has given more to the Antrim cause than Neil McManus.
On so many bleak days, the proud Ruairi Og always shone like a beacon.
Win, lose or draw, McManus was invariably magnificent.
He was again on Saturday afternoon.
Moments after the final whistle the evergreen midfielder, for once, struggled to compose himself.
With blood and sweat still streaming from his face, he needed a few seconds to collect his thoughts before speaking into a couple of tape-recorders.
“We worked wild, wild hard for a long time,” he said.
“In Portugal [training camp] and in Jordanstown, in December, in January – when we [Cushendall] were going on a club run boys were knocking their pan in [with the county].
“There were nine or 10 of our club not there; it was a lonely enough Antrim dressing room, numbers were short at that time of year and a huge amount of credit goes to those 18 or 19 players who put in that shift. Today is for them as much as anything else.”
Still trying to make sense of 70-something minutes of hurling anarchy, McManus added: “That game ebbed and flowed. It was something I’ve never been involved in before. It was crazy.”
Towards the end of Saturday’s epic Joe McDonagh Round Three clash, it looked as though Offaly were going to pip their gusty visitors in stoppage-time.
The Faithful County, staring relegation in the face, had scythed Antrim’s eight-point lead they’d built up after Nigel Elliott’s brilliant 66th minute goal down to just two points in an enthralling encounter.
The fear from an Antrim perspective was that Oisin Kelly – Offaly’s unmarkable full-forward – would get his hands on the sloithar one last time and ripple Antrim’s net for his third goal of the day, and the post-match narrative would be all about the dramatic resurrection of hurling’s fallen giant.
But the Antrim hurlers, to a man, weren’t going to be denied.
On this day, they were going to be authors of their own destiny.
For there have been too many heartbreaks, too many humiliating defeats to remember.
Antrim were the epitome of defiance – even when full-back Martin Burke, starting in place of John ‘Rocky’ Dillon, was harshly sent off in the ninth minute after a melee, they played the better hurling, grabbing two first-half goals to Offaly’s one to lead 2-10 to 1-11 at the break.
Keelan Molloy’s star in the saffron jersey continues to soar at a remarkable rate.
After hitting seven points from play across Antrim’s two previous McDonagh Cup games against Kerry and Laois, the young man’s coolness in front of goal is awesome.
It’s only a matter of time before hurling folk in the southern heartlands hear about the wiry kid from Dunloy who plays with his socks up and does things with a hurl that others can only dream about.
What Molloy has is uncoachable.
In the 25th minute Ciaran Clarke – who hit three first-half beauties – kept Neil McManus’s long punt alive before the Ballycastle man picked out Molloy who caressed the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
The small band of Antrim supporters were still drooling over Molloy’s goal finish when Oisin Kelly barged his way through the visiting defence to bundle home Offaly’s first of four majors.
In the 33rd minute, it was McManus’s turn to barge through the Offaly defence before picking out Molloy who lashed the ball into the roof of the net.
There were more than a few surprises in Antrim’s starting line-up.
In any team sport, there is no better substitute than an angry one.
On Saturday, Antrim had two – James McNaughton and Eoghan Campbell – who probably felt unlucky not to start.
Both were introduced in first-half stoppage-time for Eoin O’Neill and Ryan McCambridge – and both were superb, sharing seven points between them.
“It is about 20 players that play,” said Peden. “We’ve always said that. The 15 that start are the lucky ones and then the five that come in have got to be the finishers for us.
“Campbell’s first point [at the start of the second half] was phenomenal and James McNaughton’s first score just settled him and both had really good games.”
Nicky McKeague and Mattie Donnelly posted brave-heart displays at midfield and wing half-back, respectively, while Ryan Elliott’s short puck-outs to Paddy Burke were another glowing feature of Antrim’s display.
Joachim Kelly, assigned managerial duties following the Offaly county board's decision to sack Kevin Martin after back-to-back Championship losses, squeezed as much as he could out of a wounded squad.
Joe Bergin pounced on a rebound to put Offaly a point up [2-13 to 2-12] after 39 minutes before his partner-in-crime Oisin Kelly raced through in the 56th minute to raise another green flag and restore their slender advantage, three minutes after the home side were reduced to 14 men when Conor Mahon was red-carded for a crude hit on Donnelly right in front of the Antrim dug-out.
But it was in that final quarter every Antrim player stood tall, especially McManus who did the work of two men, reading the play superbly and showing nerves of steel from placed balls.
Campbell helped himself to another couple of points with Joe Maskey and the fleet-footed McNaughton getting in on the scoring act.
Nigel Elliott’s classy finish with four minutes of normal time remaining put Antrim eight up but there was still time for Offaly substitute Sean Cleary to raise a green flag and Bergin to fire over three placed balls to add to his tally.
But Offaly ran out of gas as Antrim, not without some heart-in-mouth moments, held on to their two-point advantage.
With Offaly still hoping to be in a position to save themselves from dropping down another Championship rung over the coming weeks, interim boss Joachim Kelly gave a candid post-match assessment.
“Antrim were flying all over the field,” Kelly said.
“We’re training since last October. Our fitness levels aren’t where they should be and you can’t turn that around in a fortnight or three weeks. Antrim were flying, reading the breaks and coming onto the breaks. We weren’t.
“I was hoping for a quick-fix because the hurlers that are in Offaly are in there [the changing room]. They are an honest bunch of lads and they gave it everything and it didn’t work out…
“Oisin Kelly did the business and if he’d got more help from lads around him we could have got the result that we wanted. I honestly thought we had our six best forwards in the county out there today to win that game.”
All roads lead to Dunloy next Saturday…
Offaly: E Cahill (0-1 free); B Conneely, D Shortt, P Camon (capt); C Kiely (0-1), S Kinsella, M Egan; A Treacy (0-3), P Murphy (0-1); C Egan, J Bergin (1-6, 0-4 frees, 0-2 ‘65s, P Geraghty (0-2); S Dooley, O Kelly (2-2), K Connolly (0-1) Subs: S Cleary (1-0) for S Dooley (h/t) D Nally (0-1) for D Shortt (h/t), K Dunne for P Murphy (41), D O’Toole-Green for P Camon (50)
Yellow cards: S Dooley (9)
Red cards: C Mahon (53)
Antrim: R Elliott; S Rooney, M Burke, P Duffin; P Burke, D Kearney, M Donnelly; N McManus (0-10, 0-7 frees), N McKeague (0-1); N Elliott (1-1), R McCambridge, K Molloy (2-0); C Clarke (0-3), J Maskey (0-1), E O’Neill Subs: E Campbell (0-3) for R McCambridge (35), J McNaughton (0-4) for E O’Neill (35), J Dillon for D Kearney (58), D McCloskey for C Clarke (74)
Yellow card: N McManus (27)
Red card: M Burke (9)
Blood substitution: E Campbell for N McKeague (32-34)
Referee: L Gordon (Galway)