Antrim hurlers slay Clare to mark their return to the top flight
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim 1-21 Clare 0-22
IT’S a crying shame Antrim hurling fans have been forced to watch their exciting new senior team on TV and various streaming services over the past year.
In another era, the Whiterock Road would have been bumper to bumper yesterday, with supporters hanging over the wire, punching the air and marvelling at the team that Darren Gleeson has built.
Corrigan Park, boasting its brand new 550-seater covered stand, looked resplendent in the sun yesterday as Antrim made a winning return to top-flight hurling against Munster giants Clare.
Instead of a few thousand Antrim supporters celebrating a brilliant and fully deserved two-point win, the only people punching the air were the few dozen stewards dotted around the west Belfast ground, Antrim officials and the players themselves.
This was a magnificent win for the Antrim hurlers.
A surprise? Yes. A shock? Not really.
Indeed, anyone with an intimate knowledge of Gleeson’s panel would probably quibble with yesterday’s result being described as a surprise, especially on home ground.
The signs have been there.
The speed with which Antrim out-grew the second tier of hurling last year was exceptional.
They were so good in reclaiming their top-flight status last season, both in League and Championship terms, that Division 1B hurling in 2021 was always going to be approached with relish and, dare it be uttered, a bit of swagger.
Gleeson has moulded a brilliantly balanced group of players that has all the desirable ingredients you need for Division One.
Its key components from the early stages of last season were the wing-forwards.
Michael Bradley and Niall McKenna have been outrageously consistent under the Tipperary man. In many ways, the St John’s and Sarsfields clubmen epitomise all that is good about the side.
The pair work like dogs down Antrim’s flanks and possess an insatiable appetite for getting their hurls or hands on dirty ball. The dirtier the ball, the better they become.
And when they have the sloitar in their hands both have played majestic hurling.
It would be churlish to disagree with Ciaran Clarke’s man-of-the-match award yesterday.
After all, he bagged the crucial goal just before half-time and was cold as ice from placed balls. But McKenna wasn’t far behind the Ballycastle sharp-shooter.
Antrim’s best player in 2020, McKenna continued where he left off last season – scavenging for breaks and providing quality passes into the forward line.
Gleeson also has uber-reliable corner-forwards. Conal ‘Coby’ Cunning has talent to burn while Clarke is playing the best hurling of his inter-county career since winning his place back in the starting line-up for the start of last year’s Joe McDonagh campaign.
Captain Conor McCann took the hits at full-forward and pinched an important first-half score after capitalising on a terrible puck-out from Clare ‘keeper Eibhear Quilligan that kept Antrim in touch facing into a stiff breeze.
Gleeson has made only minimal changes to the class of 2020. Neil McManus is fit again and dovetailed superbly with Keelan Molloy in midfield.
In order to make room for the totemic McManus, Eoghan Campbell moved back into a wing-back role and although he gave some early ground to the towering Colin Guilfoyle, the Cushendall man’s running and passing ability were glowing features of yesterday’s victory.
The domino-effect saw Gerard Walsh move back to full-back in place of the injured Mattie Donnelly and the Rossa man got better as yesterday’s Division 1B opener developed.
The only other change from last season has seen Loughgiel Shamrocks corner-back Damon McMullan edge out Dunloy’s Phelim Duffin for the right corner-back slot.
Antrim have sticky defenders, a sweeper in Paddy Burke who interprets the role really well, ball winners, scoring corner-forwards, reliable free-takers, a dynamic bench and that intangible quality of self-belief.
Even when Clare weren’t missing Antrim’s posts in the opening half, through the virtually flawless Tony Kelly and Shane O’Donnell, the hosts never panicked.
The furthest Clare got ahead was 0-9 to 0-3 after just 13 minutes before Clarke and McManus punished the Banner men with a series of mid-range and long-range placed balls.
And when Clarke spun clear in the 29th minute he got sufficient power on his strike to find the net despite Quilligan getting a strong stick to the Ballycastle man’s effort – the only major of the day that brought Antrim level [1-9 to 0-12].
In the 34th minute, Keelan Molloy showed the precious value of having a scoring midfielder in your ranks when he popped over his second point of three on the day.
Antrim trailed by just two points at the interval [0-16 to 1-11] and finally, and somewhat inevitably, edged ahead for the first time of the afternoon through Molloy’s 46th minute score, following up on Campbell's lovely point seconds earlier.
Clare hauled themselves level a couple of times but never looked convincing enough facing into the breeze in the second period, and when Tony Kelly missed his one and only free in the 56th minute to draw level, it seemed to give Antrim an extra bounce in their limbs.
And when the game was in the balance in the closing stages, Neil McManus stood tall, hitting a monster score in the 70th minute to put Antrim 1-20 to 0-22 in front after lovely build-up play involving ‘keeper Ryan Elliott and Joe Maskey.
Perhaps a Clare team of old would have found a way to see off the Division 1B new-boys.
David Reidy scampered through a couple of holes in the Antrim defence to keep Clare in the frame but when substitute Daniel McCloskey was fouled close to the Banner's posts, Clarke put two between the sides with seconds remaining.
“It’s like playing in Sixmilebridge, it’s a tight ground,” said Clare Allstar John Conlon, who has been converted into a centre-back under manager Brian Lohan.
“Antrim are a tough team, they have massive passion for the game and Darren Gleeson has done a great job by bringing them back up to Division One and playing in Liam McCarthy.
“We just weren’t at the races. We conceded a sloppy goal. We can’t be giving those kinds of goals away at the wrong times, and especially with that wind we didn’t have a big enough score going in at half-time."
He added: “It was a very difficult game to judge as a player; there were a lot of rucks and hits, it wasn’t like playing in Thurles or Cusack Park where you probably have that extra few metres to play with. Antrim used the elements a lot better than us.”
Antrim are up and running in Division 1B as they head to Nowlan Park next weekend to face the might of Kilkenny.
As both sets of players warmed down yesterday, two stewards shared a light-hearted moment with one another.
“Commiserations boys – keep the game going down there.”
The pair laughed hard.
Antrim will take the victories when they come against hurling’s big guns. Yesterday’s was certainly one of the more memorable.
Antrim: R Elliott; D McMullan, G Walsh, S Rooney; E Campbell (0-1), P Burke, J Maskey; K Molloy (0-3), N McManus (0-3, 0-2 frees); N McKenna, J McNaughton, M Bradley; C Cunning (0-2), C McCann (0-1), C Clarke (1-11, 0-9 frees, 0-1 ‘65) Subs: E O’Neill for McNaughton (47), D Nugent for C McCann (57), C Johnston for M Bradley (62), D McCloskey for C Cunning (71)
Yellow card: C McCann (38)
Clare: E Quilligan; P Donnellan, C Cleary, P Flanagan; D Ryan (0-2), J Conlon, A McCarthy (0-1); C Galvin, T Kelly (0-11, 0-7 frees, 0-1 ‘65); C Malone (0-1), D Reidy (0-3), C Guilfoyle (0-1); R Taylor (0-1), A Shanagher, S O’Donnell (0-2) Subs: R Hayes for P Donnellan (h/t), L Corry for A Shanaghan (h/t), D Fitzgerald for C Galvin (49), J Browne for P Flanagan (69)
Yellow card: R Hayes (38)
Referee: L Gordon (Galway)
CIARAN Clarke hit 1-11 - over half his side's tally. Magnificent from placed balls while showing guts and guile to ripple Clare's net. Niall McKenna, Neil McManus, Paddy Burke and Keelan Molloy get honourable mentions.
TONY Kelly looked as though he would burst Antrim's balloon. Just a class act for the Banner County. Although he missed on placed ball, the midfielder was the best of what Clare had to offer.