Antrim hurlers suffer stoppage-time heartbreak against Dublin at Corrigan Park
Allianz Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim 0-22 Dublin 0-23
THE sun eventually found the cracks in the dark, threatening clouds that hung over the Black Mountain for most of yesterday afternoon. In those last few sun-splashed minutes in Corrigan Park, Antrim’s prospects looked exceptionally bright.
They had somehow hauled themselves level with Dublin after trailing by six points at the interval.
As pulses raced in both dugouts and the home crowd began finding its voice, hopes of banking a hard-earned League point were dashed with the final puck of an enthralling Division 1B clash.
In the fourth minute of stoppage-time, man-of-the-match Neil McManus sent over an equalising free for Antrim from a scandalous distance.
But, in the few remaining seconds, there was one last sting in the tail as Dublin’s deputy free-taker Donal Burke fired over the winning score from roughly 65 metres after Antrim substitute Ryan McCambridge was adjudged to have impeded Liam Rushe.
It was a heartbreaking end for the Ulstermen who may be still pointless after two games in Division 1B – but they can doubtlessly claim significant progress has been made already this year.
Indeed, the last seven days have been akin to a dramatic growth spurt in the lives of these young Antrim hurlers.
Running All-Ireland champions Galway and a physically imposing Dublin side all the way in the space of a week is hugely encouraging - and if the Saffrons can build on these two performances, securing League points in the division shouldn’t be too far away.
“It was gut-wrenching and probably takes you a minute or two to get your head around it,” said Antrim’s joint manager Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley at pitch-side.
“But once we reflect on things and study it… We started well and then we had a 10 or 15-minute spell where we lost our shape and we sat back too much and it cost us dearly at the end.
“I thought in the second half we showed what we set out to do all along.”
McKinley added: “Maybe one day we’ll get one of those wee decisions near the end. But we’re very proud of the players in the way we came out six down at half-time and they went right to the bitter end. We were just a break of a ball away.”
Antrim raced out of the blocks. Or, to be more accurate, Neil McManus did.
The Cushendall clubman played like the mythical figure of Cú Chulainn yesterday, converting frees from distances he’d no right to convert from; he hammered into every blue jersey that had the temerity to stand in his path; he made umpteen blocks and covered ground that no one pair of lungs should be able to cover.
He was defiance itself. On the scoreboard at least, it was Neil McManus versus Dublin in the first half.
The 29-year-old centre-forward accounted for all of Antrim’s first half scores (0-8, 0-6 frees), the pick of which was his 13th minute point from play when he charged down centre back Chris Crummey’s attempted clearance near the sideline and thundered the loose ball between Dublin’s posts.
Despite McManus’s incredible contribution, the Dubs fashioned a convincing 0-14 to 0-8 interval lead and looked primed to go through the gears in the second half.
Antrim were giving serious height and weight advantage away to Pat Gilroy’s side who were eager to recover from last week’s surprise defeat to Offaly.
Seasoned forward and free-taker Paul Ryan was almost as flawless as McManus in front of the posts, while Donal Burke and midfielder Cian McBride chipped in with important first half scores for the visitors.
Antrim’s perennial problem, though, is making the ball stick up front.
Put simply, the Dubs were too big and strong for the home side’s lightweight attack, although some of the ball up to the likes of Conor McCann and Nigel Elliott was of the hit-and-hope variety.
“We know we have that problem of coming up with a ball winner,” McKinley acknowledged.
“In the second half we stopped hitting the balls that we didn’t want to hit [up front].
“You have to work the ball out, but then you’ve got to score. Arron Graffin hit two points from corner-back today and that’s what the game is all about.”
Dublin’s second half onslaught that the home crowd feared never materialised.
Cushendall corner-back Arron Graffin pushed forward and hit two fantastic points.
John ‘Rocky’ Dillon held Eamonn Dillon scoreless on the edge of the square while Mattie Donnelly was stubborn as a mule at centre back.
Antrim’s subs bench also helped them reduce Dublin’s lead.
Loughgiel’s James McNaughton hit two sparkling points, Dan McCloskey benefited from Conor Carson’s physical presence up front to point, while Neal McAuley added a bit of defensive steel.
Dublin didn’t create any goal-scoring chances and even when Paul Ryan went off, Donal Burke was equally impressive from placed balls.
Antrim kept chipping away at Dublin’s lead and finally seemed to break their resistance when McManus slung over from around 80 metres and within touching distance of the visitors’ dugout.
Just when Antrim were on the verge of celebrating a share of the spoils, Donal Burke kept his cool to win it for the Dubs in the fifth minute of stoppage-time.
“We were very happy with the response that we got from our lads,” said Gilroy afterwards, “because last week [against Offaly] was terrible in terms of our effort. We couldn’t fault them in that regard today.”
On McManus’s memorable display, Gilroy said: “We talked about not conceding frees because he is excellent from placed balls. Now, he’s a good all-round player but we would have felt that some of those frees were on the soft side, let’s just say that. But anyway, look, that happens.
“But he is excellent; his free-taking is phenomenal. That one he put over near the end was a huge free.”
Antrim: C O’Connell; P Burke, J Dillon, A Graffin (0-2); J Maskey, M Donnelly, D Kearney; C McKinley, G Walsh (0-1); J Connolly, N McManus (0-16, 0-11 frees, 0-2 65s), N Elliott; D McKinley, C McCann, Conor Johnston
Subs: C Carson for J Connolly (8, inj), N McAuley for J Maskey (43), J McNaughton (0-2) for G Walsh (44), R McCambridge for C McCann (53), D McCloskey (0-1) for N Elliott (63)
Yellow cards: M Donnelly (22), N McAuley (49), P Burke (72)
Dublin: A Nolan; P Smyth, B O’Carroll, E O’Donnell; S Barrett, C Crummey, J Madden (0-1); C McBride (0-2), T Connolly; D Burke (0-7, 0-4 frees), F Whitley (0-2), D Sutcliffe (0-1); C Keaney (0-2), E Dillon, P Ryan (0-8, 0-7 frees)
Subs: L Rushe for P Ryan (51), J McCaffrey for C McBride (53), F O Riain for T Connolly (64), P Winters for E Dillon (68)
Yellow cards: D Sutcliffe (8), C Crummey (44)
Referee: J Heffernan (Wexford)