Antrim with plenty to build on despite Cork Corrigan defeat
All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-final: Antrim 2-19 Cork 3-27
AT around 2.38pm on Saturday afternoon, all was right with the world in west Belfast.
The sun was just beginning to poke its head out from behind the grey clouds that hovered menacingly overhead while, down below, the Antrim players were being roared from the field as they took a one point lead over Cork into the half-time break.
How many of those crammed into Corrigan Park truly believed the Saffrons would go on and finish the job against their illustrious opponents? It doesn’t really matter.
What does is that, for those 15 minutes, they had something to cling to. As supporters chattered in the stand and over on the grass banks that surround the field, or nudged each other excitedly in the queue for tea, hope in their eyes, the old ground hidden behind the Whiterock Road felt well and truly alive.
Fourteen years ago, the last time one of hurling’s heavyweights came to town for a big Championship occasion, Galway – inspired by a wonderkid called Joe Canning - trampled the Saffrons into the ground.
At half-time the Tribe led by eight points. Twenty-six was the difference when all was said and done at a rain-lashed Casement Park, teenager Canning finishing up with 2-6 to his name. Wonder whatever became of him?
However, it is Corrigan’s undulating surface - and the swirling micro-climate that surrounds it - which has brought the best from Antrim on their rapid ascent in recent years.
On Saturday, after a helter-skelter opening 35, James McNaughton’s free sent the Saffrons in a point up. It was better than most could have expected but, in reality, it should have been more; it had to be more, Antrim’s 10 wides were cursed amid the cautious optimism that swept around all sides.
The travelling support weren’t hitting the panic button by any stretch, but there were low mutterings as young supporters took to the field, hurls and sliothars in hand. Even Cyril Kavanagh, Cork’s caped superfan, wore a wary grimace beneath the famous red sombrero that had already caught the wind’s eye.
Yet there had been some nervous shuffling among the Saffron faithful when, five minutes in, Antrim gifted the Rebels possession and, seconds later, the ball was in the net - Tim O’Mahony and Alan Connolly combining to leave Darragh Fitzgibbon the easiest of finishes.
Darren Gleeson’s men responded in the best way possible, McNaughton brilliantly fetching Ryan Elliott’s puckout and bursting beyond red jerseys before lashing beyond Patrick Collins. Game on.
Cork bagged another major a minute later, this time the superb Conor Lehane drilling his penalty past Elliott after David Kearney had illegally impeded O’Mahony’s advance on goal.
From there, though, Cork wanted to walk the ball into the net every time they moved forward. Opportunities for simple scores were turned down as the thirst for three-pointers grew, but it was a foolhardy approach.
As a result, the Saffrons established a foothold, dominating the central sector. They were sloppy at times too, but a lethargic-looking Cork let them off the hook as the Antrim uprising gathered momentum.
With 23 minutes on the clock, Michael Bradley picked up a break from another Elliott puck-out, laid off to Keelan Molloy and the Dunloy man bagged Antrim’s second goal, leaving just a point in it – 2-5 to 2-5 for the Rebels.
Cork looked increasingly vulnerable as half-time neared, and must have been glad to return to the sanctity of the dressing room to assess why they had been largely second best.
“We spoke to the lads a number of times during the week about the cauldron this is and the challenge they would get up here,” said boss Kieran Kingston.
“I think maybe the first 20 minutes the lads didn’t believe me because our decision-making was poor, our execution was poor. They missed some scores as well, but we were probably happy enough to be where we were at half-time…”
They were happier still 10 minutes after the break.
Where Antrim struggled to get back up to their pre half-time pitch, Cork squeezed the space and forced mistakes from the Saffrons.
Rampaging midfielder Fitzgibbon and the industrious Robert O’Flynn led the cavalry charge, with Seamus Harnedy and Lehane growing in influence as Cork tightened their grip, taking the lead and stretching it out to six with a quarter of an hour left.
The Saffrons needed goals but, unlike in the first half when the Rebels looked all at sea, the shop was now shut.
The livewire McNaughton offered late hope when he closed the gap to five with five to play, but when the Loughgiel man’s next free sailed wide of the upright less than a minute later, it felt like any chance Antrim had was gone.
Patrick Horgan, thrown into the mix for the last 10, helped see Cork comfortably over the line with a couple of classy scores, before Harnedy lashed home the Rebels’ third goal to put a bit more distance on the scoreboard.
The 11-point gap felt harsh on Antrim, but those are the margins at the very highest level. Take your chances or pay the price.
But, with Division One and Leinster Championship status already secured for next year, Saffrons boss Gleeson has plenty to be content about at the campaign’s end – even if there regrets still lingered long after Corrigan had emptied.
“Yeah, we genuinely did,” said the Tipperary man when asked if he had felt Antrim could kick on after holding the advantage at the break.
“We played well all year into the breeze. We were up by a point up at half-time but it should have been more. Maybe we needed that just to carry us through.
“Cork are playing at a higher level all year in the Championship. They’re facing into Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary, Clare – serious preparations in that.
“We played a high intensity game in Croke Park last week and probably felt it in our legs a bit today. I’d say the players were a bit nervous as well, I’d say this was the biggest crowd they’d ever played in front of in Corrigan Park, which is a plus.
“They want to be playing before that crowd all the time, there’s no reason why the Antrim people shouldn’t get behind that team. They have Leinster Championship matches here next year, Division One matches here next year – Kilkenny, Wexford, all those teams in town.
“Get into the car and up the road, that’s what they need to be doing.”
Antrim: R Elliott; D Kearney (0-1), G Walsh, N O'Connor; J Maskey, E Campbell, P Burke (0-1); M Bradley, K Molloy (1-3) J McNaughton (1-9, 0-06 frees), C Clarke, D Nugent; C Cunning (0-2 frees), N McManus (0-1, sideline), S Elliott (0-1). Subs: C McCann for Nugent (48), C Bohill for Bradley (55), C Johnston (0-1) for S Elliott (55), N McKenna for Cunning (63), D McKernan for Maskey (68)
Yellow cards: D Kearney (7), G Walsh (44), P Burke (59)
Cork: P Collins; D Cahalane, R Downey, S O'Donoghue; N O'Leary, C Joyce, M Coleman (0-1, free); D Fitzgibbon (1-4), L Meade; R O’Flynn (0-6), S Harnedy (1-3), S Kingston; T O’Mahony, A Connolly (0-2), C Lehane (1-8, 1-0 pen, 0-2 frees, 0-1 65). Subs: C Cahalane (0-1) for Kingston (28), G Millerick for Downey (51), T O’Connell for Meade (58), P Horgan (0-2) for O'Mahony (61), J O'Connor for Connolly (68)
Yellow cards: A Connolly (44), S Harnedy (59)
Referee: L Gordon (Galway)