Ruairi McCann’s back-post intervention both saves and sums up Antrim’s League campaign

Saffrons survive against resilient Wicklow

Antrim’s Ruairi McCann scores a goal  during Sunday’s Allianz Football League Roinn 3 game at Corrigan Park in Belfast
Antrim v Wicklow Antrim’s Ruairi McCann scores a goal during Sunday’s Allianz Football League Roinn 3 game at Corrigan Park in Belfast. Picture: Colm Lenaghan

Allianz Football League Division Three, round seven

Antrim 1-14 Wicklow 0-14

SUCH was the depth of Antrim’s injury crisis that Ruairi McCann hadn’t played in three months, trained for ten minutes on Tuesday, ten more on Thursday and ended making the decisive impact that keeps the Saffrons in Division Three.

When Malachy Stone and Shane Doyle didn’t deal with Eunan Walsh’s hanging shot and allowed it to bounce six yards from the Wicklow goal, they were in trouble with a capital T.

Once it hopped ten foot back into the air, Aghagallon goal-hanger McCann became the heaviest of favourites. He got above the two of them and forced it across the line.

Antrim’s need for that goal had grown. At 0-5 to 0-2 early on they looked really comfortable and in command of the game.

Ryan McQuillan did really well in the opening ten minutes from centre-forward, Dominic McEnhill nabbed a point, and McCann was squealing for the ball in 60 yards of space at times, even if that didn’t always pay off when Antrim did use it.

But then Wicklow changed tact and started to drop off, and it took the hosts time to readjust to their kicking game being cut off.

Oisin McConville’s side were back within a point heading into stoppage time.

McCann’s back-post intervention settled the jangling nerves.

Things seemed comfortable again when Patrick McBride stepped up with two superb quick points on his home patch, helping push his side six clear.

But with Dean Healy lighting the fire and Kevin Quinn feeding it, Wicklow kept at it. They had it down to four when Eunan Walsh, who’d been good on the ball but was given trouble defensively by Quinn’s pace, made a vital interception to stop his man’s through-ball that would have put Oisin McGraynor through on goal.

Quinn had a penalty claim turned down, rightly so it appeared, and flashed one over at the near post when McGraynor was on for the ball squared.

The lead of six had been halved and the nerves were back.

As much as the young lads had moments, the second half was carried by the old hands.

McBride had big influence. Declan Lynch, who became a father during the week, settled things by taking control of their link-play. Marc Jordan came up with a big score.

Michael Byrne won’t get any headlines in goal but when Wicklow pressed up in the final 20 minutes having conceded the kickout until then, the Rossa netminder found the ways out magnificently, kicking into runs with absolute precision.

That was a huge factor in avoiding any real sense of panic, being able to rely on a constant source of primary possession.

Andy McEntee said he’d counted during the week that they’d fielded a dozen league debutants across the seven games.

Given the sheer volume of men they’ve been down, there was an understandable sense of achievement on the part of Andy McEntee.

“It’s a huge result. If you look at the campaign in total. I was counting this the other day, I think we’ve had 12 or 13 fellas this year who have tasted league football for the first time this year. That’s huge.

“Look at the like of Conor Hand comes in there and does a really good job, Kavan Keenan, Ryan McQuillan, Ronan Boyle, Dan McNicholl, Eoin Hynds, Cathal Hynds, none of those played National League last year. There’s more.

“A lot of them are at the right age. Just talking to Seamus there, the chairman, there are bodies in Antrim.

“With what happened the minors yesterday, the U20s a few weeks ago, it’s getting young people interested and setting up the structures. With that in mind, today was hugely important.”

They can turn attentions to a Down team that found their way out of the third tier and had won easily in Corrigan a few weeks ago.

For Wicklow and Oisin McConville, it’s back to the fourth tier next year, a huge dent in their ambitions as they prepare to face Westmeath – also promoted to Division Two despite losing in Sligo – in two weeks’ time.

“We found out the lessons were harsher in this division. You make a mistake, you get punished, you make another, you get punished again and you’re out of the game and it’s very hard to get back in,” said the former Armagh forward.

“But I would take that any day, the workrate and the mindset and everything else we had today, but we just need to tidy up a bit.

“The thing we said at the start of the year was we didn’t want to get out and go straight back in, and that’s exactly what happened. We felt as if we had enough to stay here and we’re a kick of the ball away from it.

“We just have to take it on the chin and bounce in towards the championship.

“Mindset-wise the last two weeks, we’ve been brilliant. Before that, it was questionable.”

Antrim: M Byrne; E Walsh (0-1), D Lynch, K Keenan; R Boyle (0-1), J Finnegan, D McAleese; C Hynds, M Jordan (0-1); E McCabe, R McQuillan (0-4, 0-3 frees), R McCann; P McBride (0-4, 0-1 free), R McCann (1-1), D McEnhill (0-2, 0-1 free)
Subs: C Hand for McAleese (24), E Hynds for R McCann (30), L McLarnon for McEnhill (66), D McNicholl for Keenan (72)
Wicklow: S Doyle; T Moran, M Stone, E Murtagh; M Nolan, P O’Keane (0-1), G Fogarty; D Healy (0-2), C Maguire; D Fee, C Baker, J Carlin (0-1); C O’Brien (0-2), K Quinn (0-7, 0-5 frees), JP Nolan
Subs: J Kirwan (0-1) for Maguire (48), G Murphy for Fogarty (48), O McGraynor for O’Brien (55), J Prendergast for Carlin (62)
Red card: M Stone (67, straight red)
Referee: K Faloon (Armagh)