Antrim footballers claim moral victory but still condemned to Division Four

Antrim's James McAuley and Paddy McBride raid the Waterford defence in Dundalk on Saturday Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Antrim's James McAuley and Paddy McBride raid the Waterford defence in Dundalk on Saturday Picture: Seamus Loughran.

Allianz National Football League Division Four: Antrim 2-14 Waterford 0-13

ROUGHLY 45 minutes before throw-in, three coaches carrying the socially distanced Waterford footballers dwarfed the Geraldine’s GFC car-park on Saturday afternoon. Another hour up the road to Belfast was just out of range for Ger Walsh’s players.

Damn Covid19 strain north of the border.

The outskirts of the six counties was as far as Waterford would go.

So Antrim came to them - a little townland south of Dundalk called Haggardstown where the volunteers of the local GAA club unlocked its gates and changing rooms, cut the grass and made the Division Four nomads feel right at home.

Antrim GAA claimed a resounding PR victory in the lead-up to the on-off-on NFL game which still held out the prospect of promotion for the Ulstermen. Although they didn’t quite make it up to the Promised Land of Division Three, they did claim victory on the field that helped exorcise the previous week's defeat to Wicklow.

Prior to the game, some of the Waterford footballers claimed their employers insisted they self-isolate should they visit the north to play the game that held absolutely no incentives for them.

Then came Antrim’s magnanimous offer to play the game in Dundalk - a fixture that previously would have had to fight for a couple of column inches of space could now bank on a few more.

After losing by seven points, Ger Walsh had “no regrets” over recent events.

“First of all I want to acknowledge Antrim’s gesture for coming down here,” said the Waterford manager.

“I know there was a lot of media talk during the week but we genuinely stood behind our players; there were concerns there and in the current environment we don’t regret that one bit.

“We had a meeting with the players and people were concerned about travelling. The employer thing came up and we thought we better check that because we were aware of the national guidance to restrict your movements. But then we got feedback from some of the players they were going to have to restrict [their movements on their return].”

Antrim officials moved the game from Portglenone to Belfast, to cut down on journey time, and offered to source suitable accommodation for the Waterford squad, but they still refused to come north.

Walsh explained: “It was easier coming on the day. If we had to go that extra two hours you’re basically into overnight stays and that’s where the concerns were. We’ve a number of players living with elderly parents and grandparents. You have to respect that.”

It was hard to imagine a more unromantic setting than Haggardstown on a cold Saturday afternoon in October where Antrim needed a win and Sligo to upset Limerick down in Markievicz Park to gain promotion.

Antrim experienced a bit of turbulence on Saturday against a motivated Waterford, but nothing quite like the horrific events of Aughrim seven days earlier, where their dreams of promotion really crashed and burned.

After a series of poor kick-outs and a quite open defensive middle, Antrim settled, remedied their problems and should really have put more daylight between themselves and Waterford at the half-time interval [1-8 to 0-7].

Paddy Cunningham’s customary cuteness and accuracy yielded five first-half points as the Antrim defence began clocking up the turnover tally that resulted in scores at the other end of the field.

Antrim’s greater attacking quality too saw Odhran Eastwood, restored to the starting line-up, pounce to raise a green flag on nine minutes after his St Enda’s club-mate and centre-back James McAuley crashed an effort off the underside of the Waterford crossbar.

Dermot McAleese and Patrick McBride nailed impressive first-half points while Tony Grey, Conor Murray and Shane Curry (0-2) kept Waterford in touch.

Michael McCann’s arrival on 29 minutes added more quality to Antrim’s overall play.

The Cargin man utilised the attacking runners either side of him, he also broke forward to bag a couple of second-half points himself, kept possession well and tightened the team’s defensive centre.

Waterford, to their credit, got to within a point of Antrim after 49 minutes of play as Jason Curry and half-time substitute Jack Mullaney hit wind-assisted points from distance.

But the McCann brothers – Michael and Tomas – shared five second-half points to keep Waterford at bay while the impressive James McAuley finished off a flowing move on 54 minutes involving the McCanns and Eastwood to net and put the Saffrons 2-10 to 0-11 ahead, which effectively extinguished Waterford’s challenge.

“Last week against Wicklow was certainly not representative of Antrim and what we’re about,” said Harbinson. "It was a complete and utter blip… But where you finish in the League is, generally speaking, where you deserve to be.”

Sligo fought the good fight, losing to Limerick by just two in the end.

Saturday represented a moral victory of sorts for Antrim in Haggardstown - but another year in Division Four is a deflating prospect for all concerned.

Antrim: O Kerr; P Gallagher, D Lynch, K O’Boyle; D McAleese (0-1), J McAuley (1-0), N Delargy; C Duffin, M Jordan; K Quinn, P Healy, M Sweeney; P Cunningham (0-5, 0-2 frees, 0-1 sideline), O Eastwood (1-1), P McBride (0-2) Subs: M McCann (0-2) for M Jordan (29), P McCormack for K Quinn (43), T McCann (0-3, 0-2 frees) for P Cunningham (49), R McCann for M Sweeney (54), R Murray for C Duffin (65)

Yellow card: M Sweeney (33)

Waterford: A Beresford; S O’Donovan, B Looby, A Jones; R Flynn, M Curry (0-1), T Grey (0-3, 0-1 mark); S Ahearne, J Curry (0-2); C Murray (0-2), D Corcoran, B Lynch; F O’Cuirrin (0-1), D Hallinan, S Curry (0-2) Subs: W Hahessy for A Jones (h/t), D Guiry for D Hallinan (h/t), J Mullaney (0-2) for S Ahearne (h/t), D Ryan for R Flynn (55)

Yellow cards: T Grey (60), D Ryan (61)

Red card: S Curry (73)

Referee: P Falloon (Down)

Waterford manager Ger Walsh defended their decision not to travel north Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Waterford manager Ger Walsh defended their decision not to travel north Picture: Seamus Loughran.