Hurling and camogie

Antrim hurlers stay in Division One after tense win over Laois

Antrim's Conal Cunning tries to escape Laois clutches at Corrigan Park. The Dunloy man top-scored with 1-10 as the Saffrons preserved their top flight status Picture by Hugh Russell
From Brendan Crossan at Corrigan Park

Allianz Hurling League Division One Group B round four

Antrim 3-18 Laois 1-18

A DIRTY, nerve-shredding day in Corrigan Park where the Antrim hurlers bared their souls in a storming second-half display to preserve their Division One status and push perennial rivals Laois closer to the abyss.

It was a tremendous feat in itself by the ground staff at the west Belfast venue that this game got the go-ahead after an early morning pitch inspection – and you sensed from the get-go that the outcome of this eagerly awaited Division 1B face-off would come down to dogged determination rather than skill.

Yes, there were important tactical tweaks along the way in what turned out to be an exhilarating victory for Darren Gleeson’s side yesterday – but more than that was the willingness of the Antrim players to go to the edge of reason and put their bodies on the line for the cause and each other.

Before delving into the forensics of an engaging encounter, which saw Antrim come from six down to win by six, there needs to be warm acknowledgement of the warrior spirit shown by the likes of Nigel Elliott, Michael Bradley and the team’s ageless totem, Neil McManus.

When Elliott was called ashore in the 73rd minute, he just about carried his exhausted frame to the seats at the front of the Corrigan Park stand.

Earning his first start since 2019 and muck up to his eyeballs, it was impossible for the Dunloy wing-forward to have given any more.

He was utterly spent - but not before arrowing the ball into the corner of Laois’s net after four minutes, assisting for Conal Cunning’s second-half major, chasing a thousand lost causes and emerging from umpteen muddy rucks like Braveheart.

All the while hampered by a dead leg he sustained in the opening seconds.

Antrim’s defence was all at sea for most of the opening half until Michael Bradley of St John’s closed the centre through his uncoachable reading of the game but also showing incredible bravery by throwing himself in harm’s way on so many occasions, denying the O’Moore men each time.

And just when Laois were leading by six points and coasting to the interval, with their front six never missing the target, Neil McManus caught Gerard Walsh’s long raking pass, muscled his way past full-back Liam O’Connell and hammered the ball past Enda Rowland in goal.

Seconds later, Cunning knocked over his fifth placed ball of the opening half after McManus was fouled by O’Connell and after playing really poorly, Antrim were just two adrift at the break.

Initially, Gleeson had opted to play James McNaughton on the edge of the square but was quick to see his ineffectiveness on heavy sod and the Loughgiel man and midfielder McManus swapped positions after 20 minutes.

Everything aimed at McManus in the second half stuck to the Cushendall man like glue.

“Neil held the ball up really well up top,” a relieved Gleeson said afterwards.

“James, I suppose, was winning the race with pace [at full-forward] but the wrestling match didn’t suit him. James played really well when he came out to the middle of the field.”

Laois boss Willie Maher must have been at a loss to explain how they only held a two-point advantage at the break because they virtually owned the first half.

Their classy performance was making a mockery of the three heavy defeats they’d suffered in the division up to yesterday.

All their front six got on the scoresheet in the opening 35 minutes, with Aaron Dunphy finding the net in the 22nd minute after more indecision from the Antrim backline.

Every high puck-out into the Laois forward line seemed to unnerve the home side while at the other end of the field Antrim were guilty of overplaying and didn’t deserve to be as close as they were at half-time.

But the undoubted turning point was McManus’s goal in first-half injury-time. Facing into a stiff breeze in the second half, it was impossible for Laois to keep shooting the lights out as they did in the opening half.

A Cunning free and a point apiece from Maskey and McManus in the opening six minutes of the second period was the platform Antrim needed.

Just a point ahead, Cunning grabbed Antrim’s three-pointer of the day on 52 minutes, with Walsh’s radar on song again by finding Nigel Elliott, who off-loaded to his Dunloy club-mate to finish a brilliant move.

Antrim’s bench also made the desired impact.

Domhnall Nugent won a couple of vital possessions and Eoin O’Neill sent over a beauty after clever assist play from Keelan Molloy. And in the dying seconds Paddy Burke put more daylight between these two rivals.

With seconds remaining, Laois sub Gearoid Lynch was rightly red-carded for a bad hit on Michael Bradley. Even before that stage, victory had been sealed.

A relieved Antrim will be playing top flight hurling for the fourth consecutive year in 2024 while Laois are the ones pondering a relegation play-off.

Antrim: R Elliott; P Burke (0-1), R McGarry, S Rooney; J Maskey (0-1), G Walsh, N O’Connor; M Bradley, J McNaughton; K Molloy (0-2), N McKenna (0-2), N Elliott (1-0); C Cunning (1-10, 0-8 frees, 0-1 ’65), N McManus (1-1), C Johnston Subs: S Elliott for C Johnston (35 inj), D Nugent for N McKenna (64), S Walsh for N O’Connor (64), P Boyle for J Maskey (68), E O’Neill (0-1) for N Elliott (73)

Yellow cards: G Walsh (16)

Laois: E Rowland; I Shanahan, L O’Connell, D Hartnett; P Delaney, P Purcell, F Fennell; J Kelly (0-1), A Corby; S Maher (0-7, 0-6 frees), R Mullaney (0-1), J Keyes (0-2); T Keyes (0-2), M Phelan (0-1), A Dunphy (1-4) Subs: W Dunphy for M Phelan (43), J Duggan for R Mullaney (51), G Lynch for A Corby (57), S Bergin for J Keyes (63)

Blood substitution: P Dunne for F Fennell (68-71)

Yellow cards: P Delaney (28)

Red card: G Lynch (77)

Referee: P Murphy (Carlow)

Hurling and camogie