Hurling & Camogie

Antrim hurlers preserve their Liam MacCarthy status with some swagger

Conor Johnston celebrates scoring a goal in yesterday's game at Mullingar Picture: Seamus Loughran
Conor Johnston celebrates scoring a goal in yesterday's game at Mullingar Picture: Seamus Loughran

Leinster Senior Hurling Championship Round five: Westmeath 1-19 Antrim 4-24

AFTER 36 days of attritional, utterly compelling hurling in the Leinster Championship, it came down to a beautiful, sunny day in Mullingar where Antrim needed to pull out all the stops to save themselves from the dreaded drop against Westmeath.

But Antrim folk needn’t have worried, for Darren Gleeson’s men would play this game with clear minds and a warrior spirit that their hosts simply couldn’t match.

This was Antrim's day - when all those dark winter evenings running around up in Dunsilly paid off.

The favour Westmeath needed from Kilkenny in Wexford Park didn’t come either as Antrim’s hosts now contemplate Joe McDonagh hurling in 2024.

In the lead-up to yesterday's win-or-bust shoot-out, no-one in the Antrim camp attempted to dilute the importance of the outcome. Relegation was simply unthinkable.

Too much had been invested within Antrim GAA to allow the momentum built up over the last four seasons under Gleeson to be squandered.

Antrim passed this stress test with flying colours.

Apart from their “standard 10-minute blip” just before half-time, when goalkeeper Ryan Elliott was black-carded even though Owen McCabe recovered to goal, Westmeath were generally second best.

Before the storm hit Cusack Park on the half hour mark, Antrim were coasting and 2-7 to 0-8 in front.

By half-time, they were two down with Elliott off the field and full-back Gerard Walsh forced to go into goal.

Antrim emerged for the second half, still without their regular ’keeper, and hurled heroically.

Keelan Molloy, Neil McManus and James McNaughton hit a point apiece just after the restart.

Antrim were well and truly in the groove.

“When you’re playing inter-county, it’s a journey of a life-time as a player and to be involved as a mentor is absolutely fantastic,” beamed Gleeson at pitch-side afterwards.

“We’ll do everything in our power to keep this going. That’s what I said to the lads at half-time – keep this journey going for the county, and they’ve done that. They expressed themselves, they were freed up and were magic at times in the second half.”

It was no word of a lie from the affable Tipp man.

Livewire forwards Conal Cunning and Conor Johnston had raised green flags in the eighth and 14th minutes – but it was in the second half Antrim really took flight.

Claiming an assist for Cunning’s well-taken major in the first half, James McNaughton exploded into life in the second period claiming a marvellous 1-3 from play.

Corner-back Niall O’Connor of St Enda’s, Glengormley produced his best display yet in an Antrim jersey, tagging on a classy point in each half.

Beavering away in midfield, Seaan Elliott was brilliant in every sense, winning hard-earned turnovers and frees in the scoring zone and knocking over a couple of points too.

Keelan Molloy was the architect of numerous scores in the second half, the pick of which was finding his Dunloy club-mate Eoin O’Neill with a perfect pass in the 67th minute.

Antrim’s super sub hammered the ball to the net, a score that extinguished any fight that was left in Westmeath [3-21 to 1-17]. Two minutes later, McNaughton thumped home Antrim’s fourth major of the day after Seaan Elliott had won yet another turnover.

But here's the irrefutable truth of the matter: nobody has conveyed the ceaseless spirit of this Antrim team for a generation or more better than Neil McManus.

Has there ever been a better hurler or leader in the county than the Cushendall man?

The 35-year-old's inclusion for yesterday’s relegation face-off was a major surprise especially after he’d torn his hamstring against Kilkenny at the start of the month that was supposed to keep him side-lined for seven weeks.

He was back in three and winning the ugliest kinds of balls at wing-forward, the most uplifting kind, the kind of which that inspired his team-mates to greater heights.

With mission accomplished and Westmeath running on empty, McManus was substituted in the 70th minute.

Was this the end of the road for a true great?

The warm embrace between player and manager on the side-lines seemed to suggest as much.

“Neil McManus shouldn’t have been on a hurling field today – no way,” Gleeson sighed in admiration of his leader.

“He got a scan result the other day and we were nearly better off not seeing it, but he just said: ‘I’m playing this match.’”

Westmeath, for their part, gave it one almighty shot yesterday, but they couldn’t reproduce last week’s performance that saw them humble Wexford.

Shorn of Killian Doyle, their talisman, for most of this Championship campaign, free-taker Ciaran Doyle and wing-forwards Davy Glennon and Niall O’Brien gave fantastic accounts of themselves – but on a day that really mattered they couldn’t keep Antrim down for long enough.

Asked did keeping Antrim hurling in the Liam MacCarthy eclipse winning a couple of All-Irelands with his native Tipperary, Gleeson said: “You have to separate your playing days from your managerial days.

“But your mentoring days are special because you’re trying to put something in place for guys and you see it working out for them, you’re delighted.

“There’s not much glamour in Dunsilly in November and December especially facing a season that Antrim were facing into, and the peril is always there.

“When you’re going well, it’s great. Both these teams had a huge amount riding on this game today. I’m just delighted for the rewards the guys are getting and I’m delighted being in the middle of them.”

Westmeath: N Conaty; D Egerton, C Shaw, J Bermingham (0-1); T Doyle, A Craig, R Greville; J Galvin (0-2, 0-1 sideline), C McCormack; D Glennon (0-4), E Keyes, N O’Brien (0-3, 0-1 free); O McCabe (1-0), J Boyle (0-2), C Doyle (0-7, 0-2 ‘65s, 0-4 frees) Subs: N Mitchell for C McCormack (41), P Clarke for A Craig (49), D McNicholas for C Doyle (59), C Boyle for C Shaw (70), K Regan for O McCabe (71)

Antrim: R Elliott; P Burke, R McGarry, N O’Connor (0-2); G Walsh, E Campbell, C Bohill; J McNaughton (1-3), M Bradley; K Molloy (0-1), C Johnston (1-1), N McManus (0-2); C Cunning (1-9, 0-7 frees), N McKenna (0-3), S Elliott (0-2) Subs: D McKernan for C Bohill (11 inj), E O’Neill (1-1) for C Johnston (61), R McMullan for N McManus (70), D Nugent for C Cunning (73)

Black card: R Elliott (31 plus stoppage-time to 38)

Yellow cards: C Cunning (6), D McKernan (26), J McNaughton (46)

Referee: K Jordan (Tipperary)