Antrim hurlers get the job done to stay in Leinster as Darren Gleeson ponders managerial future

Saffrons claim the win and send Carlow to Joe McDonagh

Antrim V Carlow at Corrigan Park
Antrim's Niall McKenna is surrounded by Carlow players at Corrigan Park. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Leinster SHC round five
Antrim 4-22 Carlow 2-22

AT long last, an anxious Corrigan Park was able to breathe out. To secure their Leinster Senior Hurling Championship status, it was probably always going to come down to the last weekend of May for the Antrim hurlers.

It was exactly the same scenario this time last year when Darren Gleeson’s side had to travel to Mullingar and beat Westmeath to stay afloat in hurling’s top tier.

On both occasions, they held their nerve.

At the final whistle in Mullingar last May, Gleeson was emphatic about staying on for a fifth season.

After yesterday’s six-point victory, the Tipperary man was slightly less inclined to talk about a sixth year at the helm and might feel the time is right to leave Antrim.

“Genuinely, we will give it thought,” Gleeson said.

“It’s easy to say you can walk away on a good note. I’ll reflect with the lads and see where we’re at.

“The management team behind me have given a huge amount of time and effort. When we started this a few years ago with Neal [Peden], Jim [Close] and Gary [O’Kane], we’ve built it on from there, it’s a long road.

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘job done’, but I need to give it the right thought. I have to see what’s going on in my own life as well.”

Antrim Hurling manager Darren Gleeson. PICTURE: MAL McCann
Antrim manager Darren Gleeson will reflect on whether to stay on for another year PICTURE: MAL McCann

If Gleeson does decide to say goodbye, keeping Antrim in the Leinster series in 2025 is only what his endeavours deserve, while Carlow must ponder Joe McDonagh hurling next season.

The visitors to the Whiterock Road were as awkward an opponent as Antrim had anticipated.

Despite the various stress tests Carlow set Antrim yesterday, the Ulstermen were able to pass them.

Tactically, Carlow were an open book. There is no team in the country more direct than them.

It was their Plan A, Plan B and C and it was unashamed too.

From the first whistle, they kept firing long balls down the throat of the Antrim defence in the hope it would eventually suffocate them.

“We looked at some videos during the week and we saw how direct they were,” said Cushendall defender Paddy Burke afterwards.

“You can know what a team is going to do, but it is still very hard to stop it.

“If a team brings work-rate, aggression and they’re physical, it’s going to be hard to play against.

“I’m glad we were able to put a wee bit of daylight between us and them and that we didn’t concede a goal near the end.”

Carlow’s directness was yielding results too – until attacker Chris Nolan was red-carded before the second half commenced following his part in a schmozzle on the stroke of half-time that saw Antrim’s Michael Bradley felled.

Nolan’s dismissal went some way to disabling the Carlow attack and they were left over-relying on the prolific Martin Kavanagh pulling this relegation showdown out of the fire for them.

All the while, Antrim’s goal threat never waned and when they had a numerical advantage in the second half, the hosts generally made it count by picking off Carlow.

Conal Cunning and man-of-the-match James McNaughton grabbed two goals apiece.

Three of Antrim’s goals came in the first half. McNaughton set up Cunning for his first major of the day on eight minutes.

Three minutes later, Chris Nolan replied with a brilliant goal for the visitors before McNaughton rippled Carlow’s net again in the 19th minute after accepting Eoghan Campbell’s astute pass.

And when Cunning struck home from a penalty in the 25th minute, Antrim drew level with Carlow [3-5 to 1-11].

As the first half drew to a close, you always sensed Antrim would eventually get to grips with Carlow’s long ball strategy and that the visitors would struggle to contain the direct running of McNaughton, Keelan Molloy, Nigel Elliott and Niall McKenna.

Antrim’s goalkeeper Ryan Elliott played a key role in this crucial victory too, making a stunning save from Carlow attacker James Doyle two minutes after the restart.

Martin Kavanagh left Corrigan Park with 1-11 against his name. The St Mullin’s ace was outstanding.

His 56th minute goal that squeezed in at the near post brought Carlow level [3-16 to 2-19] – but two minutes later James McNaughton administered the killer blow for the home side by accepting Seaan Elliott’s pass and hammering the ball into Carlow’s net for the fourth time of the afternoon.

Carlow's Chris Nolan gets a red card playing against Antrim at Corrigan Park. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Carlow's Chris Nolan gets a red card at the start of the second half Park. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

By that stage, Niall O’Connor, Paddy Burke and Conor Boyd had finally tamed the Carlow attack as Antrim outscored the visitors 0-5 to 0-2 in the final seven minutes plus stoppage-time.

“We put in some really good spells of hurling,” said Gleeson. “Carlow put in some massive spells of hurling there as well and had us in all sorts of trouble early on.

“You’re looking up at the scoreboard – we were wasteful, they were very clinical.

“But I always felt there was a gear we could go up and we were stuck in between gears at times. We got there in the end.”

Despite this tumultuous conclusion at the bottom of the table, there is a growing sense of discontent that there is relegation in Leinster but none in Munster, and teams such as Carlow could benefit from a safety net so they can lay foundations in top tier hurling.

“There was so much peril in that game for everybody,” Gleeson added.

“You could see that on the field. We are two of the few teams that had that peril hanging over us all season and if you don’t get your business done early in the season it’s down to a one-game shoot-out, anything can happen.

“The altercation at half-time was probably the big moment in the game…

“It’s about maintaining your status in the Leinster Championship. Two wins in Leinster [Wexford and Carlow] isn’t to be sniffed at either.

“To get a result anywhere is very difficult. We’re delighted with two wins but we were hunting for three to try and get ourselves progressed in the Championship but it wasn’t to be.”

Antrim R Elliott; C Boyd (0-1), R McCloskey, P Burke (0-1); G Walsh (0-2 frees), N O’Connor (0-2), E Campbell; M Bradley, K Molloy (0-3); N Elliott (0-1), J McNaughton (2-3), N McKenna; C Cunning (2-8, 1-0 pen, 0-6 frees, 0-2 ‘65s), C McCann (0-1), S Elliott

Subs P Boyle for M Bradley (62), J McLaughlin for C McCann (64), C McGarry for S Elliott (73), R McMullan for S Elliott (73), F McCurry for J McNaughton (75)

Yellow card N McKenna (36)

Carlow B Tracey; P Doyle, D Wall, N Bolger; J Kavanagh (0-1), K McDonald (0-1) T Lawlor; J McCullagh, P Boland; C Nolan (1-1), C Whelan (0-1), M Kavanagh (1-11, 0-7, 0-2 ‘65s); C Kehoe (0-3); JM Nolan (0-1), James Doyle (0-3)

Subs F Fitzpatrick for J Kavanagh (47), D Murphy for JM Nolan (66), R Coady for C Whelan (71)

Yellow cards J McCullagh (20), M Kavanagh (40), James Doyle (44)

Black card P Boyle (24-34)

Referee J Owens (Wexford)