Antrim fail to impress as Westmeath gain revenge for last summer’s relegation defeat

Conor McCann
Antrim's Conor Mc Cann tries to evade Westmeath's Kevin Regan during Saturday's clash at Cusack Park Picture Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Westmeath 2-18 Antrim 1-15

From Brendan Crossan in Mullingar

EVERYTHING about Saturday afternoon in Mullingar was unmistakably grey. The sky was grey. The hurling was grey. Cusack Park itself was grey.

It was as grey as you could possibly imagine where neither team gave a decent account of themselves.

In the fading light, Westmeath won this Division 1B basement battle and will be buoyed by the prospect that fourth spot is still within reach and they have a fighting chance of securing a berth in next year’s rejigged 1A containing all of hurling’s big guns after claiming their first win of the campaign.

The fact that there is no relegation from Division 1B this season is Antrim’s comfort blanket and was probably the chief reason why the hurling served up by both sides was so desperately grey.

Every time Antrim stepped on the gas on Saturday there wasn’t a lot there. It’s a League campaign that can’t end quick enough for them.

If manager Darren Gleeson could fast-forward to the squad’s warm weather training camp in Portugal later this month, he would in a heartbeat.

The visitors played in spurts – or to be more accurate, mini spurts. Lacking a heap of first team regulars from the start of the year, Antrim also lacked impetus against an opponent they would feel they always have the edge on.

But with only 21 players available to travel to the Midlands – five short of the match-day quota – due to injuries, retirements, sabbaticals and the U20s playing an Ulster final in Belfast on the same day, it always had that feel of a day where Westmeath would have enough to win and avenge last season’s Championship relegation play-off loss to the Ulstermen.

Just like Dublin at Corrigan Park last month, Westmeath were aided significantly by a goalkeeping error.

With Antrim trailing 0-6 to 0-5 after 23 minutes, young Tiernan Smyth failed to catch Eoin Keyes’ high puck and the ball dropped almost inoffensively over the visitors’ goal-line.

It was another nightmare for the Ballycastle clubman who suffered a similar fate in the dying embers against the Dubs a month earlier.

His opposite number Noel Conaty dropped a similar ball towards the end of the game as the ball squirmed from his grasp, only to trickle over the end-line for a ‘65.

Antrim boss Darren Gleeson Picture: Seamus Loughran (seamus loughran)

Afterwards, Westmeath manager Joe Fortune leapt to the visiting keeper’s defence.

“The young fella made a mistake,” said the Wexford man.

“Look, the hardest place to play is the number one position and we all know that. Noel [Conaty] dropped the ball there as well. They’re heroes when they make saves but that one mistake they make over 70 minutes...”

To Smyth’s credit, he made two point-blank saves to deny top scorer David Williams in the 54th minute and midfielder Robbie Greville in stoppage-time.

A gifted corner-forward for his club, Smyth has been drafted in as goalkeeper in the absence of Ryan Elliott of Dunloy who is taking a break from inter-county hurling.

The truth of the matter is Antrim need Elliott back to mind the house if they are to make any inroads in the Leinster SHC round robin this season, which gets underway against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park on April 21.

But if Elliott has no appetite to return to the county fold, then there is little Darren Gleeson can do – but it is the elephant in the room.

Once Keyes’s speculative effort dropped over Antrim’s goal-line Niall McKenna – one of the bright sparks on the Antrim team on Saturday – raised a green flag immediately after making the most of Scott Walsh’s long diagonal pass.

Conor McCann also offered Antrim some much-needed physical presence beside Conal Cunning up front and twice found his range in the opening half.

Rory McCloskey at full-back had some good moments, Niall O’Connor too, Eoghan Campbell embarked on some fine runs from midfield while McKenna showed his class a couple of times and some grit too.

Westmeath deservedly led 1-12 to 1-8 at the break with Williams grabbing six scores (0-5 frees).

Things didn’t improve for Antrim after the restart and it took them 12 minutes before they registered a second-half score, courtesy of substitute Eoin McFerran.

Conor Boyd, who was also introduced from the bench, offered more intensity to Antrim’s back-line and Loughgiel attacker Christy McGarry was lively upon his 55th introduction – but the visitors never looked as though they possessed the appetite to overhaul Westmeath’s perpetual advantage on the scoreboard.

And they were put out of their misery when substitute and talisman Davy Glennon fired home Westmeath’s second goal on the hour mark to push the hosts’ lead out to 2-15 to 1-12.

Wing-back Niall O’Connor stepped forward to land two points from distance for Antrim and Campbell bagged another late on – the comeback never really got off first base.

As the light declined, which merely added to the afternoon’s greyness, Westmeath deservedly held on with a bit of comfort.

They now travel to face Dublin next weekend with a spring in their step, while Antrim have an ominous final League game at Corrigan Park against Gleeson’s native county Tipperary.

If there was a fast-forward button, Antrim would definitely avail of it in the hope that some established names return to the field.

Westmeath: N Conaty; D Egerton, T Doyle, C Gaffney; J Gillen, K Regan, J Bermingham; R Greville (0-1), S McGovern; N Mitchell, D Williams (0-8, 0-6 frees, 0-1 ‘65), O McCabe; E Keyes (1-2), J Boyle (0-1), D O’Reilly (0-2) Subs: A Craig for J Gillen (22), P Clarke (0-1) for S McGovern (h/t), K Doyle (0-2) for D O’Reilly (h/t), D Glennon (1-1) for E Keyes (53), M Daly for O McCabe (66)
Yellow cards: S McGovern (16), O McCabe (59)
Antrim: T Smyth; P Duffin, R McCloskey, P Burke; S Walsh, R McGarry, N O’Connor (0-2); E Campbell (0-2), E Og McGarry; R McAteer, R McMullan, N McKenna (1-1); C Cunning (0-7, 0-5 frees), C McCann (0-2), F McCurry Subs: C Boyd for E Og McGarry (45), E McFerran (0-1) for S Walsh (45), C McGarry for R McMullan (55), A Bradley for R McAteer (58)
Yellow cards: C Cunning (33), N McKenna (54), N O’Connor (59)
Referee: S Hynes (Galway)