Hurling and camogie

Antrim hurlers celebrate dramatic Joe McDonagh triumph

The Antrim players and management their Joe McDonagh Cup success  Picture: Seamus Loughran.
From Brendan Crossan at Croke Park

2022 Joe McDonagh Final: Antrim 5-22 Kerry 4-24

WHEN Darren Gleeson breezed into the dimly lit lecture theatre hall on the ground floor of the Cusack Stand, awaiting reporters wanted answers from the winning manager.

The pats on the back for being the best team in the competition were put on hold.

Saturday’s epic Joe McDonagh triumph would doubtlessly be celebrated with some gusto by the Antrim hurlers later in the evening, but the mad climax against a fantastically gutsy Kerry needed explanation.

What just happened out there on the famous turf? The reporters’ collective tone wasn’t interrogative – it was pure curiosity.

Truth be told, nobody really knew the answer.

It was simply one of those daft days in Croke Park where reason eluded the most forensic of observers. You had no choice but to go with it and savour this non-stop nine-goal thriller.

Kerry’s incredible second-half comeback was anarchy. Hellish anarchy for Antrim.

The Saffrons led by 10 points at half-time and stretched that commanding lead to 11 on 41 minutes after man-of-the-match Conal Cunning bravely slammed home Antrim’s fourth goal.

Soon after Cunning’s major, all hell broke loose.

Kerry somehow clawed their way back into this astonishing decider but fell agonisingly short by a single point after six nerve-shredding minutes of stoppage-time.

When the heroic Podge Boyle thumped home his second goal of the day for Kerry to bring his match tally to a monstrous 2-11 and to within a point of their punch-drunk opponents, Dublin referee Sean Stack called for the sloitar and blew his final whistle.

Kerry would have given anything for one more play – and they probably would have carved out another score from it because that’s all they did in that manic last quarter.

Throughout this memorable decider we saw the many faces of both finalists.

In the opening 20 minutes, Kerry seemed completely overawed by the occasion and the sheer slickness of the Ulstermen. But, by the end, the tables had turned.

Kerry hurled with uplifting freedom while Antrim looked completely spooked as soon as the finishing line emerged.

Antrim were awesome and then suddenly erratic. Sharp and incisive before losing the plot.

Those clear, bright minds of the first half became desperately foggy in the second period.

Good decision-making was the first casualty.

For some inexplicable reason, Antrim’s backs began lumping the ball into Domhnall Nugent, a 53rd minute substitute, on the edge of the square who was regularly surrounded by four Kerrymen.

The Kingdom would win back handy possession and drive forward in droves.

Antrim, lamentably, hit the repeat button and didn't get enough bodies back to protect themselves.

In short, Darren Gleeson’s players stopped trusting themselves in possession as Kerry were transformed into a fearsome tsunami.

But for the heroics of Ryan Elliott in goal, the softest-ever free awarded to Daniel McKernan and late moments of magic from subs Eoin O’Neill, Niall McKernan and McKernan, Antrim would have lost this final.

“I’m a bit numb,” said Gleeson afterwards, “because we were so far ahead. And you’re thinking: how did we end up like that? Instead of joyous, you’re thinking how did that happen?

“The second half was crazy. We lost our shape, completely. It can happen in games. It was very hard to get our instructions onto the field.

“From our point of view on the sideline, we’ll look at ourselves and see what more could we have done there. We were trying to relay messages to close it up but it was very difficult to do it, you’re trying to pull lads out to the sideline…”

And yet, in the opening 25 minutes or more, Antrim played champagne hurling. It was exhilarating stuff. Their play was sharp, accurate and utterly ruthless.

A penetrating run down the right flank and off-load from Joe Maskey allowed Ciaran Clarke to cut in and raise the first of five green flags for Antrim after just five minutes.

Six minutes later, Clarke turned provider for James McNaughton who found the net with ease to put Antrim 2-3 to 0-2 ahead.

Cunning was cool as ice from placed balls and open play, Neil McManus popped over two first-half points and Dunloy midfielder Keelan Molloy was starting to motor.

A converted penalty from Podge Boyle in the 27th minute kept Kerry on life-support but the hard-working Seaan Elliott had grabbed another goal for Antrim on the cusp of half-time that seemed to put an airborne Antrim out of reach [3-14 to 1-10].

With Podge Boyle finding his range, Mickey Boyle shoring up the holes in the defence and Shane Conway and Daniel Collins helping out on the scoreboard, Kerry had steadied themselves at the restart.

But it was 25th minute substitute Jordan Conway who was the unmistakable catalyst for Kerry. Trying to nail this livewire of a forward in the second half was like asking the Antrim backs to nail jelly. It was impossible.

After Ryan Elliott made a full length save to deny Shane Conway in the 49th minute, it was his Kerry namesake Jordan who turned this final on its head with two quick-fire goals in the 50th and 55th minutes to make it a three-point game [4-18 to 3-18].

Ciaran Clarke responded by netting a brilliant penalty on the hour mark after Neil McManus had been cut down by Paudie O’Connor, who earned a black card for his crude hack at the Cushendall man.

Podge Boyle pulled two placed balls wide of Antrim’s posts as 70 minutes approached, and even though Michael Leane and Paudie O’Connor found their range, Kerry couldn’t draw level.

In the 72nd minute, McKernan appeared to lose his footing in his own half of the field. Kerry were livid at the referee’s decision to award the Sarsfields man a free, their anger only compounded by Cunning’s ridiculous conversion to put four between the sides.

Still Kerry drove forward while at the Canal End McKernan and Eoin O’Neill grabbed vital scores to keep the Munster men at bay.

In the 76th minute, Podge Boyle rifled home Kerry’s fourth goal of the day, but there was no time for them to push this epic contest into extra-time.

Antrim survived Kerry's second-half onslaught and were crowned Joe McDonagh champions for the second time. Nobody can dispute they were the best team in this year's Championship.

“Kerry were relentless,” Gleeson said. “They kept going and going. They had heartbreak for two years. It’s amazing what hurt and searching for your first will bring you. That’s what Kerry brought.

“We threw everything we had at it. We lost our shape but, look, we did enough at the end of the day. We won by one.”

Cork awaits Antrim at Corrigan Park in the All-Ireland quarter-final prelims this weekend and Kerry have home advantage to Wexford.

However, the bigger prize for Antrim was getting a proper crack at the Leinster SHC round robin next year.

Given the work Gleeson’s close-knit squad have put in over the past three seasons, they deserve to be where they find themselves.

Antrim: R Elliott; D Kearney, G Walsh, P Burke; J Maskey, E Campbell, C Bohill; M Bradley, K Molloy (0-2); J McNaughton (1-1), N McManus (0-2), C Clarke (2-2, 1-0 pen); C Cunning (1-12, 0-9 frees), C McCann, S Elliott (1-0) Subs: D McKernan (0-1) for C Bohill (50), D Nugent for C McCann (53), N McKenna (0-1) for J McNaughton (62), C Johnston for C Clarke (64), E O’Neill (0-1) for N McManus (69)

Blood substitution: R McGarry for E Campbell (23-24)

Yellow cards: P Burke (43)

Kerry: L Dee; C O’Keefe, E Ross, E Leen; S Weir, F Mackessy (0-1), M Boyle; M Leane (0-2), P Boyle (2-11, 1-0 pen, 0-7 frees, 0-1 ‘65); C Walsh, C Harty, P O’Connor (0-1); G Dooley (0-1), D Collins (0-3), S Conway (0-2) Subs: J Conway (2-2) for C Harty (25), M O’Connor (0-1) for G Dooley (45), N Mulcahy for C Walsh (49), B Lonergan for D Collins (64)

Yellow cards: C Walsh (17), E Ross (25)

Black card: P O’Connor (59-69)

Referee: Sean Stack (Dublin)

James McNaughton grabbed one of Antrim's five goals in Saturday's Joe Mc Donagh final at Croke Park Picture: Seamus Loughran.

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