Antrim hurlers passing Carlow on the Joe McDonagh stairs
Joe McDonagh Cup Round Three: Antrim v Carlow (today, Corrigan Park, 12.30pm)
FIRST of all, let’s state the obvious: there is little love lost between the hurlers of Antrim and Carlow.
Some men in saffron still carry the scars of the battle of Corrigan Park four years ago when Carlow finished the Joe McDonagh Cup game with just 12 players and Antrim with 14.
Richard Coady drove the butt of his hurl into the groin region of Neil McManus that required a half dozen stitches and O’Donovan Rossa’s Michael Armstrong suffered a horrible arm fracture that hastened his inter-county retirement.
They were two savage injuries - both crude examples of Carlow crossing the line.
Antrim’s Eoghan Campbell was dismissed in the 27th minute but much worse was to unfold for the visitors to west Belfast in May 2016 when Coady, Diarmuid Byrne and Jack Kavanagh were all red-carded in a stormy second half that required 15 minutes of injury-time.
Antrim won the game, but the injuries incurred (including Joe Maskey suffering a broken foot) were too much to absorb and which contributed to the Ulstermen failing to win the second tier All-Ireland competition.
It was an unforgettable afternoon for all the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, the sides have met since that mad day on the Whiterock where cooler heads prevailed.
In October 2020, Domhnall Nugent’s improvised goal finish in stoppage-time down in Cullen Park gave Antrim a share of the spoils – a point that proved crucial in the county’s successful pursuit of the Joe McDonagh.
Back then, there was a hair’s breadth between Antrim and Carlow hurling. If they played each other 10 times, they'd probably win five each by the narrowest of margins.
But, given the trajectories of both sides since Nugent’s piece of genius down in Carlow, Antrim’s graph is the more impressive while their opponents’ has plateaued somewhat.
Carlow, who were able to decide the early throw-in time of 12.30pm today because of their journey time, are fighting for their Joe McDonagh lives.
That automatically makes them a dangerous opponent.
They racked up 4-30 in their handy opening-day win over hapless Meath before Kerry came to Carlow’s backyard and left with the points and a handsome 3-21 tally.
“Embarrassing” was manager Tom Mullally’s description of Carlow’s performance last weekend who mustered just seven points from play - a side that continues to be back-boned by Richard Coady, Jack Kavanagh, Diarmuid Byrne and Marty Kavanagh.
The only way is up for Carlow today.
They will want to turn Corrigan Park into a battle – hopefully not on the same lamentable level as four years ago – but a battle nonetheless, because if they allow a hurling game to break out, they’ll lose and the home side will have one foot in the McDonagh final on June 4.
After suffering a comprehensive defeat to the saffrons in the NHL relegation play-off in Navan, Offaly almost cracked the Antrim code a couple of weeks ago at Corrigan and were unlucky to head south empty-handed.
From a Carlow perspective, Offaly’s approach that day was instructive. But Antrim will have absorbed the lessons from how Offaly got closer to them.
For Darren Gleeson, he’ll want to see Antrim move the ball quicker and with more accuracy than the Offaly game.
Goalkeeper Ryan Elliott and Eoghan Campbell are critical in ushering the sloithar up the field. Once it gets there, the home side have the finishers and enough physicality to put Carlow to the sword.
Neil McManus is likely to return to the starting line-up this afternoon after playing a half hour in last Sunday’s comfortable win over Down in Ballycran.
Nugent and Conor McCann will give Carlow plenty to think about too with both men adept at swapping positions from full-forward and wing-forward and vice versa.
And then Antrim have Seann Elliott, Ciaran Clarke and Conal Cunning who bring excellent form into today’s clash.
Joe Maskey’s move into midfield has worked better than expected with Keelan Molloy still out with a hamstring injury.
Paddy Burke and Gerard Walsh have had strong campaigns in defence but if there is one quibble of the Antrim management team, it’s the need for more composure and consistency in the defensive corners.
Phelim Duffin and Niall O’Connor are likely to get the nod either side of Walsh today. All indicators point to a home win this afternoon and Antrim to remain unbeaten in the Joe McDonagh.