Hurling and camogie

Keelan Molloy's last-gasp strike against Wexford keeps Antrim in top flight

James McNaughton breaks through a ruck of Wexford players during Saturday's exciting draw at Corrigan Park Picture: Seamus Loughran
From Brendan Crossan at Corrigan Park

Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Antrim 1-21 Wexford 2-18

 

EXHILARATING. Absolutely exhilarating. It would be a crying shame if Division One hurling ever leaves this passionate northern outpost.

For 80-plus minutes on Saturday afternoon this was living. Corrigan Park pulsed with incredible excitement, tension and with some dramatic moments of controversy that had the 450 supporters baying for more.

After 11 nerve-shredding minutes of stoppage-time this titanic struggle between Antrim and Wexford finished in a draw – which turned out to be enough for the Ulstermen to secure their top flight status following Kilkenny issuing the last rites to pointless Laois in Nowlan Park yesterday afternoon, who now enter the relegation play-off with Westmeath.

To seal promotion with a game to spare is some achievement too.

Gallant wouldn’t do Antrim’s performance justice on Saturday. Despite presenting their visitors with two early goals, Darren Gleeson’s men refused to lie down.

They kept chipping away at Wexford’s resolve and looked as though they had the winning of the game in the closing stages when man-of-the-match James McNaughton spun on his left side to fire over in the 74th minute to put the home side one point up [1-20 to 2-16].

But back came Lee Chin (free) and Liam Og McGovern with scores in the 78th and 80th minutes to edge the Model County in front.

The hugely impressive Eoghan Campbell seemed to have the last effort on Wexford’s posts which curved to the right.

At that point the game seemed to be up for Antrim.

But there was still time for one more play in a fascinating, breathless contest.

On the periphery of the Antrim panel in 2021, Shea Shannon of St John’s showed his class by grabbing a game-changing goal in the 65th minute and setting up the equalising score right at the death.

He scooped up the loose ball that spilled from a ruck and picked out Keelan Molloy on the stand side with a magnificent pass.

If there was a man Antrim supporters would have wanted on the ball at that precise moment, it was Molloy.

The nerveless Dunloy midfielder displayed sheer contempt for the awkward angle and with a technique that’s smooth as silk he caressed the ball between Wexford’s posts to snatch a well-deserved draw.

It was a brilliant score from a brilliant hurler.

This game had everything: bone-crunching hits befitting of Division One hurling, some brilliant individual performances, two managers going at it on the sideline, Neil McManus and Matthew O’Hanlon also going hammer and tongs – which resulted in a 46th minute dismissal for the 2019 Leinster medallist for interfering with McManus’s helmet.

Carlow ref Patrick Murphy evened up the score as the game entered stoppage-time when he served McManus with a second and slightly harsh yellow card.

During Antrim’s period of numerical advantage, they out-scored their opponents 1-7 to 0-5 between the 47th and 70th minutes.

As ever, Davy Fitzgerald was throwing shapes on the sideline and was put off it on the stroke of half-time for barging into Antrim boss Darren Gleeson over a disputed decision that lingered with both managers for longer than it should have.

Truth be told, Fitzgerald didn’t barge the big Tipperary man too far, but it was still deserving of a sending-off for the colourful Clare native.

As Clare goalkeeper back in the heady 90’s and as a manager, Davy Fitz has always been in a permanent state of war.

He’s controversial, confrontational and often over-steps the mark - but hurling would be a lesser game without characters like him.

And yet, for such a feisty contest there was plenty of love after the final whistle.

During his post-match interview with press reporters, Gleeson momentarily broke away to embrace Fitzgerald, who’d just completed a pitch-side interview with TG4.

Both whispered sweet nothings in each other’s ear. Clearly, no hard feelings.

It helped, of course, that neither manager left the Whiterock Road venue a loser on Saturday evening.

With more than a bit of Tipperary rogue in him, Gleeson is fast becoming master of the understatement. Asked what caused the tension that spilled over into physical contact between him and Fitzgerald, the Antrim manager said: “Ah, it was just two lads swapping different points of view. That happens. We’re good hurling people.”

A few yards away, Fitzgerald finished his last interview for the broadcast media where he was on his best behaviour.

But as soon as he turned to speak to press reporters one ‘f’ wasn’t waiting too long on the other – but with each swear word delivered in a jocular sense.

“I f****** knew that was going to be the way coming up here,” the Wexford manager said.

“When we were up five or six points at the start, we f****** stopped doing what we were doing. We were opening them up like. We had f****** goal opportunities. We have a particular style of play and when we go away from it we’re not as good. We need to stay doing it.

“Listen, we knew it was going to be tough. We didn’t lose – that’s important to me. I don’t like losing, but you have to have respect for Antrim. Stop this: ‘Ah sure you didn’t beat Antrim.’ Come up here and see how you get on and see what the story is.

“I always felt the standard of club hurling up here is high. All they need is someone to bring it out for the county – and Darren seems to be getting that out of them. And they’ll only get better – and I think it’s only good for hurling that we have another team coming. I’m delighted to see them there. But I’d rather be beating them…”

A good stand-up comedian wouldn’t have got the laughs Fitzgerald got each time he was asked a question on Saturday.

He had reporters eating out of his hand by the end.

On his sideline disagreement with the Antrim manager, the Clare man said: “We disputed a line ball. I didn’t think it was out, he thought it was out. I could be wrong on that. [But] You fight for your cause. The reason I got moved was because what happened between me and Darren. But that happens. Unfortunately, it’s not my first.

“All I know is that I want to win. I’ve a f****** huge desire to win and I don’t care, I want to win. I don’t think that’ll change. If you take the fight out of the dog you’re in trouble. Maybe there a lot of people who’d like to see me quiet on the sideline but if I’m passionate about something I’m going after it. That’s it. End of story.”

In the opening exchanges of Saturday’s clash, Wexford’s physicality and penetrative quality threatened to blow Antrim out of the water. The home side’s defence was torn like tissue paper as the alert Lee Chin off-loaded to Liam Og McGovern and he found Conor McDonald who picked his spot after three minutes.

Six minutes later, the Antrim defence failed to deal with a high ball and Paul Morris lashed home from close range to put Wexford 2-2 to 0-3 ahead.

Antrim steadied themselves but still trailed 2-9 to 0-10 at the break with James McNaughton, thriving in midfield, firing over four times from open play in the first half.

Two minutes after the restart, Antrim suffered another wobble.

Ryan Elliott made a game-saving block from midfielder Diarmuid O’Keefe, but had the goal chance been converted it would have put Wexford seven ahead and might have had a demoralising impact on their hosts.

As it was, Chin missed the resultant ’65 and Antrim were still in the game with only four between the sides.

Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke and Niall McKenna performed brilliantly for the home side while midfielders Molloy and McNaughton conjured eight points from play between them.

Antrim gained momentum from Wexford once O’Hanlon received his marching orders in the 46th minute with home substitutes Ciaran Clarke and Shea Shannon improving the home side’s attack.

The game was there for the taking when McManus’s clever reverse pass under pressure found Shannon and the St John’s man blasted home to put Antrim 1-19 to 2-14 ahead.

Wexford, however, outscored the home side 0-3 to 0-1 in stoppage-time and when Molloy fired over a late, late equaliser it felt like a victory judging by the roars of the Antrim supporters.

At the start of the season it was anticipated that next Saturday’s clash between Antrim and Laois would decide who enters the relegation play-off, but the Saffrons drafted a very different and hugely uplifting script.

They’ve now beaten Clare and drawn with Wexford at Corrigan Park.

They gained respect from Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. Apart from the desperately disappointing display against Dublin, Antrim have raised the bar in enterprising fashion.

They’re home and hosed with a game to spare in Division 1B. Who would have dreamt it?

Antrim: R Elliott; D McMullan, G Walsh, S Rooney; E Campbell, P Burke, J Maskey; K Molloy (0-4), J McNaughton (0-7, 0-3 frees); N McKenna, E O’Neill, N McManus (0-1); D McCloskey, C Cunning (0-7, frees), C Johnston (0-1) Subs: A O’Brien for J Maskey (27), C Clarke (0-1) for D McCloskey (50), S Shannon (1-0) for E O’Neill (61), C Bohill for C Johnston (70), P Duffin for S Rooney (75) Blood substitution: A O’Brien for K Molloy (16-21)

Yellow cards: G Walsh (68), N McManus (46 & 73), E Campbell (78)

Red card: N McManus (73)

Wexford: M Fanning (0-1 free); C Flood, L Ryan, S Donohue (0-1); G Bailey, M O’Hanlon, S Murphy; L Og McGovern (0-2), D O’Keefe; A Nolan (0-1), C McDonald (1-1), P Morris (1-1); R O’Connor (0-1), L Chin (0-9, 0-8 frees), K Foley Subs: J O’Connor for R O’Connor (14), C Hearne for A Nolan (61), J O’Connor (0-1) for G Bailey (54), C Firman for S Murphy (65), M Dwyer for P Morris (65)

Yellow card: K Foley (48)

Red card: M O’Hanlon (46)

Referee: P Murphy (Carlow)

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Hurling and camogie