GAA Football

'That was character there today': Antrim bounce back to clip Cavan's wings

Antrim's Ruairi McCann puts pressure on Cavan's Jonathan McCabe during Saturday's Division Three clash at Corrigan Park. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Neil Loughran at Corrigan Park

Allianz National Football League Division Three: Antrim 1-17 Cavan 2-12

THAT’S how you bounce back – not just from the 31 point humbling at the hands of Westmeath, but from the turning of the tide against Antrim, that dreaded sense of déjà vu as another commanding lead came and went with the finish line in sight.

Cavan arrived at Corrigan Park the all-conquering force; the men too good for Division Three who had laid waste to the Saffrons’ Ulster Championship ambitions on the same sod 11 months ago. Conventional wisdom suggested this was easy meat.

That bizarrely one-sided beating a fortnight ago was an outlier in the context of Antrim’s overall performances this year, but would only remain so if the real Saffrons found a way to stand up once more.

They could have come away with a win against Offaly on the opening day, should have beaten Down and Fermanagh only to come a cropper either side of trimming Tipperary, and then there was the massacre in Mullingar.

Lose heavily again and all of a sudden you’re looking at a major problem - but they didn’t.

With relegation fears still at the back of minds before throw-in, Andy McEntee’s men fronted up and delivered a gutsy, determined performance that fully merited a critical two points - even if, having led by 10 with 20 minutes to go, late goals from Conor Madden and Paddy Lynch almost saw another one slip away.

With Tipperary relegated after defeat to Offaly, Antrim would be safe if Down defeated Longford in Newry on Saturday evening. Ireland’s Grand Slam tilt could wait.

“I think I’ll be following that instead of the rugby,” smiled McEntee.

And, after some soul-searching over the past fortnight, the Meath man was proud of how his side had taken their licks and battled back. Even when the game was getting away from them, Antrim won five kick-outs in-a-row to wrestle back control and eventually douse the Cavan fire before Patrick McBride finished the job.

“Given what happened last time, and the way the game was going today, to turn around and win those kick-outs, win that breaking ball and get that final score, it showed great guts,” said McEntee.

“Look, Mullingar was just a no show, for multiple reasons. But we talked about turning up today, putting in a performance and showing real character… that was character there today. I thought they were brilliant.”

Cavan were already as good as up and, even in defeat, promotion is secure. Mickey Graham shuffled his pack, opting to hold the talismanic Gearoid McKiernan and James Smith in reserve, despite their game-changing introduction against Down, while the influential Dara McVeety wasn’t in the panel.

Antrim settled first, a sixth minute goal from Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann - expertly finished beyond Raymond Galligan after collecting an inch-perfect Eoghan McCabe pass - settled any early nerves.

For all the forward finesse of Odhran Eastwood, Dominic McEnhill and the irrespressible McBride, it was the commitment to the cause that provided the platform for them to flourish. A brave Patrick McCormick block at the boot of Brandon Boylan just before the half hour - taking the sting from the Cavan man’s shot - epitomised the determination to park the Westmeath defeat, with midfield pairing Jack Dowling and Colm McLarnon continuously carrying the fight to Cavan.

When Antrim won possession, they broke forward with purpose and stretched a six point half-time lead out to 10 by the 50 minute mark. It was barely believable just how much they were on top.

But the inevitable sting in the tail came as the ghosts of last-gasp losses loomed large, 2020 Ulster final hero Madden buried low beyond Michael Byrne five minutes from time to get nerves jangling.

The Saffrons steadied the ship but, having been given a remarkable reprieve when James Smith somehow managed to miss from a yard out at the back post, instead sending Tiarnan Madden’s shot back out into play, Cavan cut the gap once more.

Antrim coughed up possession under the stand and within second the ball was worked to Lynch, who lashed home on an otherwise quiet afternoon to leave just a point in it five minutes into the six extra allocated.

Surely it couldn’t happen again?

Cometh the hour, though, cometh the man, and there couldn’t have been a soul inside Corrigan Park who begrudged the brilliant Patrick McBride as he hugged family and friends when all was said and done.

Just two weeks after the tragic loss of sister Marie, the St John’s man was Antrim’s driving force all afternoon – making tackles, playing inch-perfect passes, and popping up with crucial scores.

On his home patch, everything McBride touched turned to gold, his fifth point from play sealing the deal on a day when the real Saffrons had to stand up.

Antrim: M Byrne; E McCabe, D Lynch, J McAuley; P McCormick (0-1), J Finnegan, M Jordan (0-1); C McLarnon, J Dowling; P Finnegan, R McCann (Creggan) (0-1, free), P McBride (0-5); D McEnhill (0-2), R McCann (Aghagallon) (1-0), O Eastwood (0-6, 0-2 frees). Subs: P Healy for P Finnegan (51), S McGarry (0-1) for McBride (54), C Stewart for Dowling (64), B McCormick for J Finnegan (67), P McBride for McEnhill (68)

Yellow card: C McLarnon (35)

Cavan: R Galligan (0-2, 45s); K Brady, P Faulkner, C Moynagh; C Brady, C Reilly, T Madden; J McKenna (0-1), K Clarke; G Smith, C Madden (0-3), J McCabe; B Boylan, P Lynch (1-1), Ryan O'Neill. Subs: G McKiernan (0-2, frees) for Boylan (HT), J Smith for K Brady (HT), D Brady for McKenna (45), Conor Madden (1-2) for O'Neill (45), C Smith (0-1) for Smith (64)

Black card: C Moynagh (70)

Yellow card: K Clarke (35), C Brady (43), G Smith (52)

Referee: K Eannetta (Tyrone)

GAA Football