GAA Football

Meek Antrim no match for a rejuvenated Cavan side at resplendent Corrigan

Gearoid McKiernan's influence grew as game wore on with Antrim's James Laverty always in arm's reach of the Cavan man Picture: Seamus Loughran.
From Brendan Crossan at Corrigan Park

Ulster Senior Football Championship first round: Antrim 0-10 Cavan 1-20

ANTRIM’S mantra in the build-up to Saturday’s Ulster Championship showdown with Cavan was Corrigan Park or nowhere.

However, midway through the second half of a painfully one-sided and muted affair it was a case of anywhere but Corrigan Park for deflated Antrim fans.

Once Gearoid McKiernan side-footed into Antrim’s net in the 59th minute with supreme composure to put the visitors ahead by 1-15 to 0-9, hordes wearing sunny saffron colours were already heading for the Whiterock Road exit.

With the television cameras rolling, gantries erect, cranes in crouched positions and the movers and shakers of the GAA punditry world with lush green grass under their feet, the old St John’s GAC ground never looked more resplendent.

The blazing sun just added to its flawless complexion. You could see the months of meticulous prep work in securing Antrim's first home game in the Ulster Championship since 2013 as soon as you walked through the gates.

Sadly, this wasn’t reflected in Antrim’s performance. It was desperately meek in nature – and that will hurt the Antrim manager Enda McGinley most of all, the Tyrone man having raised standards since taking the reins.

Last summer, they eventually lost heavily to Armagh in the provincial series but drew warm praise afterwards for their method and tactical clarity at The Athletic Grounds.

Comparing both Championship displays nine months apart, it felt like regression. Maybe this is as good as it gets for Antrim football on the Championship stage.

Undoubtedly, though, McGinley was placed behind the 8-ball in the build-up.

To lose your first-choice goalkeeper and full-back on the doorstep of the Ulster Championship were two body blows to Antrim’s preparations.

Having featured in every Division Three game this year - bar the last one against Westmeath - goalkeeper Oisin Kerr stepped away from the panel.

And roughly 10 days out from the Cavan game, Ricky Johnston – the team’s undisputed number three - informed the Antrim management team he was leaving to play football in America.

Most Division One teams would struggle to absorb the loss of their goalkeeper and full-back. It’s even tougher the further you stare down the Leagues.

To his eternal credit, though, O’Donovan Rossa ‘keeper Michael Byrne played the shirt off his back on Saturday and rivalled Ryan Murray as the team’s best performer in a 13-point hammering.

Johnston’s absence, though, was more keenly felt as it disrupted Antrim’s defensive balance. Physically, Johnston seemed the perfect fit for Cavan’s powerful full-forward Paddy Lynch.

As it turned out, the Crosserlough ace left Corrigan Park on Saturday afternoon with the man-of-the-match award in his kitbag and a burgeoning reputation further enhanced.

Peter Healy simply didn’t have the physicality to knock Lynch out of his stride.

It’s easy to be wise after the event but this Ulster Championship tie was billed in some quarters as a '50-50' game.

It was never that kind of game. It was ‘60-40’ at best, even with home advantage for Antrim.

These Cavan footballers have been masquerading as a Division Four team all year, but they are not even close to the bottom rung of National League football.

Antrim supporters with a worm’s eye view of the men in Breffni Blue on Saturday knew it as soon as they galloped onto the Corrigan Park field.

After climbing the provincial summit in the midst of a global pandemic, Mickey Graham’s players were an emotionally spent force in 2021. Last year’s abbreviated League format killed them.

But they remain a physically imposing unit – much bigger than Antrim – they are very mobile with a handful of brilliant decision-makers in their ranks and are tactically astute in an attacking sense.

Had they not badly shanked a half dozen scoring chances in the opening quarter of an hour at Corrigan on Saturday, Antrim would have been put out of their misery much earlier.

Either side of McKiernan, Conor Moynagh and Lynch’s early misses, Michael Byrne made a brave block to deny roving forward Cormac O’Reilly on eight minutes.

In those stormy opening minutes, Antrim found it exceptionally difficult to get the ball up the other end of the pitch.

Ryan Murray was one of the few players in saffron who came close to performing at the requisite level. He got on a glut of ball against his shadow Jason McLoughlin and it was no surprise the Lamh Dhearg man opened the home side’s account after an agonising 24 minutes.

Luckily for them, Cavan had only put three points on the scoreboard at that stage.

Antrim’s best period of the game was undoubtedly between Murray’s brilliant opener to the end of the first half where they somehow pegged back Cavan and only trailed 0-7 to 0-6 at the interval.

Dermot McAleese, Conor Stewart, Paddy McAleer and Mick McCann all found the target for Antrim - each score desperately hard-earned.

Healy was doing his level best against young Lynch on the edge of Antrim’s square. Absolutely everything stuck to the Cavan forward's chest.

Tenacious James Laverty was constantly aiming lassos around McKiernan on the '40' with the Cargin man's successes becoming more sporadic as the game wore on.

Gerard Smith and Marc Jordan were engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse, with Smith finding himself in more scoring positions than his opposite number. Cian Madden was pulling a few strings out the field, especially in the first half.

Conor Moynagh kept things even and calm at the back for Cavan and the two goalkeepers had brought their ‘A’ games to sunny Corrigan.

But once Mayo ref Jerome Henry blew his whistle for the start of the second half, Cavan’s tempo went up a few notches and despite protecting their full-back line better than they did in the first half, it didn’t stop the visitors locating Antrim’s goalposts.

A Ryan Murray free had the home side briefly on level terms on 38 minutes before Cavan stepped on the accelerator with Gerard Smith and Paddy Lynch claiming a pair of points each. Midfielder Kevin Small stopped the rot before Cavan resumed their assault on Antrim’s posts again, hitting three more unanswered scores.

Any yellow cards that were going they came Antrim’s way. In the 53rd minute Mick McCann picked up his second of the day for an untidy challenge on Paddy Lynch and appeared shocked leaving the field.

Antrim were trailing by four points when they were reduced to 14 men and ended up losing by 13. McCann’s dismissal was a contributing factor but it was not decisive as Cavan were already coasting to victory.

Physically, Antrim struggled in the air and on the deck for most of this encounter as they crawled into double figures.

Cavan’s substitutes helped finish the game strongly too with Marty Reilly, making a comeback after injury, finding Lynch with an inch-perfect sideline ball.

Near the end line, Lynch in turn fed McKiernan who dummied before slotting the ball into the net to put the visitors out of sight on the hour mark.

In the closing stages, Cavan tagged on another five points.

The scoreboard didn't flatter the winners one bit. Make no mistake, Cavan are a very good team.

Maybe by the end of this Ulster Championship we might have a deeper appreciation of just how good they are and that Antrim's pain might ease in time when they watch their conquerors' trajectory over the coming weeks.

Right now, though, the Tailteann Cup must feel like a death sentence for the Antrim players.

Antrim: M Byrne; E McCabe, P Healy, C Stewart (0-1); P McAleer (0-1), J Laverty, D McAleese (0-1); K Small (0-1), M McCann (0-1); R Murray (0-3), M Jordan, R McCann; O Eastwood, C Murray (0-1 free), T McCann Subs: J Gribbin (0-1) for R McCann (13), P McBride for O Eastwood (h/t), D Lynch for T McCann (h/t), P McCormick for E McCabe (63)

Yellow cards: D McAleese (9), E McCabe (62), M McCann (17 & 53), P Healy (51), C Stewart (58)

Red card: M McCann (53)

Cavan: R Galligan (0-1 free); J McLoughlin (0-1), P Faulkner (0-1), K Brady; L Fortune, K Clarke, C Brady; T Galligan, J Smith (0-1); G Smith (0-3), G McKiernan (1-2, 0-1 free), C Moynagh; Cormac O’Reilly (0-1), P Lynch (0-8, 0-5 frees, 0-1 mark), C Madden Subs: C Conroy for K Brady (55), M Reilly (0-2) for C O’Reilly (57), Caoimhin O’Reilly for C Madden (65), Ciaran Brady for Conor Brady (67), R O’Neill for P Lynch (70)

Referee: J Henry (Mayo)


Tactical take…

With regular full-back Ricky Johnston absent, Antrim had a problem trying to match up Paddy Lynch. The Antrim management team opted for Peter Healy. Eoghan McCabe might have had more muscle to upset Lynch. As it was, Healy and McCabe didn’t have a lot of protection in front of them in the first half and only for Cavan’s wastefulness, Antrim should have been much further behind in the opening exchanges. They remedied this after the break, but were still leaking scores.

Apart from a brilliant break from Ryan Murray that led to Mick McCann’s first-half point, Antrim zig-zagged too much without making a lot of headway and were short on attacking ideas. They really struggled with Raymond Galligan’s kick-outs too and looked a little lost at times, which made the Cavan goalkeeper’s job in the second half much easier than it should have been.  


Tactical take…

CAVAN attacked with a nice fluidity but their shooting was woeful in the opening 10 minutes. They were very good at rotating their midfielders and full-forwards at times. Cian Madden did damage from deep positions in the opening half, while Mickey Graham’s match-ups made a lot of sense, with possibly Jason McLoughlin versus Ryan Murray the only one that didn’t work out. Gerard Smith, as per usual, got on a lot of ball and hit three points.

Once Antrim placed a sweeper in the second half they had the presence of mind to run the ball and shoot accurately from distance, although Paddy Lynch was like Velcro when they did kick it in. Physically, this clash was a bit of a mismatch, while they also showed they have a few players on the bench who can improve them. Cavan were bigger, stronger and much smarter than their hosts.

Michael McCann gets a red card from referee Jerome Henry Picture: Seamus Loughran.


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