GAA Football

Steely Antrim up and running as Fermanagh fade in final quarter

Eoghan McCabe in possession alongside Michael McCann - two of Antrim's best performers in Saturday night's win over Fermanagh Picture: Donnie Phair
From Brendan Crossan at Brewster Park

Allianz League National Football League Division Three: Fermanagh 0-8 Antrim 1-14

GIVEN Antrim’s encouraging trajectory under Enda McGinley, this still felt like something of a statement win in Brewster Park on Saturday night.

But it was probably drowned out a little by the giddy exploits of the Armagh and London footballers in Dublin and Carlow, respectively on the same crazy evening.

It’s true many casual observers didn’t see this victory coming - but the Antrim camp probably did.

The signs were there during their two McKenna Cup outings, and they backed it up with a couple of emphatic spells against a Fermanagh side whose challenge faded badly in the final quarter.

Antrim were slightly fortunate to carry a 0-6 to 0-3 lead in at half-time, but they soaked up what their hosts threw at them after the break before hitting an unanswered 1-5 that completely broke the Ernemen’s spirit.

And that’s what’ll bug Kieran Donnelly most – the way in which his relatively young side capitulated towards the end.

Trailing by five points after 41 minutes, Fermanagh hauled themselves to within a point of their visitors after Gary McKenna finished off a fine counter-attacking move in the 57th minute, but when Kevin Small found the net for Antrim 60 seconds later, it was game over.

Worn down by Antrim’s intensity, ceaseless tackling and sickening economy in front of goal, Fermanagh were a spent force after Small’s 58th minute major as Jamie Gribbin, Tomas McCann, Ruairi McCann, substitute Seamus McGarry and Dermot McAleese breezed through unopposed to nab points before the end.

“Antrim are an experienced team, they’ve been about for a number of years and that seemed to stand to them,” said Donnelly afterwards.

“We have been blooding a lot of younger players but we still expect a lot more from ourselves, we expect higher standards and we have to demand that of ourselves. Antrim have been together maybe a year longer but we still need to be better. We can’t accept that last 10-15 minutes at any stage. That’s something we have to improve on.”

You could throw a magnifying glass over the middle of the Antrim defence being opened up too easily on three notable occasions in the first half – and their management team probably will ahead of hosting Limerick next Saturday – but there were many glowing features in their display.

Firstly, their defensive match-ups were spot on. Ricky Johnston followed Darragh McGurn everywhere and kept him to one point, while young Eoghan McCabe displayed power, pace and temperament to smother the significant threat of Sean Quigley on the edge of the square.

Kevin Small looks a player reborn after inspiring Kickham’s Creggan to the club championship in 2021 and was imperious in midfield against Derrygonnelly’s Ryan Jones who is no slouch on the inter-county stage.

But it was his midfield partner and metronomic Michael McCann who dictated terms in Brewster Park on Saturday night.

The Cargin man is Antrim’s ageless wonder. At 36, McCann defies logic.

He’s still pulling the strings in Antrim’s engine room, still doing the ugly things well, still burning the GPS strapped to his shoulder blades, still fetching and putting balls on a plate for anyone who cares to make a half decent run.

He also has an uncoachable sixth sense for danger, playing his part at either end of the field.

He popped over a brilliant score from distance to put the visitors 0-5 to 0-2 ahead on 23 minutes and set up Small’s goal who needed two attempts to beat Erne ‘keeper Sean McNally.

McCann’s younger brother Tomas looks fitter than he has done in several years too. It was his ridiculous 45th minute point that put the brakes on Fermanagh’s second-half comeback.

Their club-mate Jamie Gribbin also had good moments and made the most of the possessions that came his way, and it’s easy to see why the intelligent Ruairi McCann played every minute of every game for Antrim last season.

Of course, had Fermanagh taken at least one of their three first-half goal opportunities, there might well have been a different narrative coming out of Brewster.

James McMahon spurned the first goal chance on 18 minutes when he fisted into Antrim’s net when he should have let fly with his right foot.

Three minutes later captain Declan McCusker accepted Ryan Jones’s off-load but he flashed his right-footed effort wide and in the 29th minute Sean Quigley’s palmed effort came back off Antrim’s upright.

It was quite remarkable the Ernemen trailed by three at the interval.

And although Quigley converted a few placed balls and McCusker fired over after the restart, Antrim never looked like losing this Division Three opener.

“We’d 11 shots, Antrim had seven in the first half,” Donnelly noted. “We were working below 30 percent shot to scoring ratio.”

Alongside their better scoring economy, Antrim’s desire and insatiable appetite to do the hard yards were the key reasons why they won on Saturday night.

“We know every match is going to take everything we’ve got to get over the line,” said Antrim assistant Sean Kelly.

“While it looked like we ran out comfortable winners in the end, by no means was that a comfortable win.

“We need to stay humble and keep working hard.”

On Saturday's evidence, Antrim will make a decent fist of promotion. Fermanagh, meanwhile, will need to show greater mental resolve to get their Division Three campaign up and running.

Fermanagh: S McNally; J Cassidy, G Cavanagh, L Flanagan; A Breen, J McMahon, D McCusker (0-1); R Jones, J McDade; JL Ellis, B Horan, R Lyons (0-1); C Corrigan, D McGurn (0-1), S Quigley (0-4, 0-3 frees, 0-1 mark) Subs: Stephen McGullion for J McDade (23), G McKenna (0-1) for R Lyons (51), Shane McGullion for A Breen (51), T Bogue for L Flanagan (65)

Black card: B Horan (69)

Antrim: O Kerr; E McCabe, R Johnston, J McAuley; P Healy, J Laverty, D McAleese (0-1); M McCann (0-1), K Small (1-1); R Murray (0-1 free), J Gribbin (0-2, 0-1 mark), P McBride; T McCann (0-3, 0-1 free), R McCann (0-2, 0-1 free), O Eastwood (0-2, 0-1 mark) Subs: P McAleer for P McBride (h/t), C Murray for O Eastwood (51), P McCormick for R Murray (55), S McGarry (0-1) for R McCann (68), P Shivers for T McCann (73)

Blood substitution: B McCormick for T McCann (75 to finish)

Yellow cards: R McCann (16), M McCann (19)

Referee: B Tiernan (Dublin)

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