Hurling & Camogie

Conor Johnston and Eoghan Campbell on top of the world after relegation win

Conor Johnston celebrates scoring a goal against Westmeath Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Conor Johnston celebrates scoring a goal against Westmeath Picture: Seamus Loughran.

CONOR Johnston thought about quitting the Antrim hurling set-up many times and Eoghan Campbell mightn’t have had the heart to return next season had they been relegated – but the pair were on top of the world in Mullingar on Sunday.

Both Johnston and Campbell played key roles in their 14-point win over hosts Westmeath that saw the Midlanders relegated to the Joe McDonagh.

Plagued by a debilitating hip problem for a couple of seasons and currently awaiting surgery to repair a wrist injury, it didn’t stop Johnston popping up with some crucial scores in 2023 and helping the county safeguard their top flight status in both the League and Championship.

“I never really got a run over the last few years because of different injuries,” said Johnston.

“There were times I was for packing it in, the boots were gone and I was thinking: is this really worth going through the pain? But days like this, it is worth it, and we just want to keep it going now.

“That Westmeath game was one of the most important games for Antrim hurling in a long time. If we’d lost, it could've set us back for a long time, but we can go at it even harder next year.”

The John’s man added: “This is the best set-up Antrim has ever had. You can see how close we all are; everybody wants to leave the jersey in a better place. Everyone is elated after staying up. We’ve given our all to this - I’m so proud and happy.”

Campbell insisted that anything other than victory in Mullingar was unthinkable. Westmeath, who’d defeated Wexford in their last encounter, needed only a draw against Antrim or Kilkenny to beat Wexford – but both results went against them.

“Had we lost to Westmeath it would have been a massive blow,” said the Cushendall man.

“We made a decent start against Dublin in Leinster and we probably didn’t follow up after that. The campaign as a whole was disappointing, but staying up is huge. It means so much for the development of hurling in Antrim and being in Division One again next year and another round robin in Leinster for us to target.”

Any other scenario and Campbell might well have called time on his inter-county career.

“It would've been extremely hard,” he admitted.

“There would have been a lot of thinking over the summer whether you’d come back or not and to have another crack at the Joe McDonagh. I think I’m here 11 or 12 years and it’s a long time to be at it.

“Losing was unthinkable to be honest. Nobody came to Mullingar thinking about losing.”

Antrim had one period of difficulty against Westmeath when they were reduced to 14 men after goalkeeper Ryan Elliott was sinbinned.

Five points up on the half hour mark, the visitors found themselves trailing by two at the break.

“We’re used to it because every game this year we’ve had a dizzy spell,” noted Campbell.

“We knew when we were playing our style we were all over them to be honest and when they had the breeze we knew it would take them out a bit and we could hit ‘Coby’ [Cunning], Conor [Johnston] and James [McNaughton] inside and they could roam. We just upped the work-rate and there was no stopping us in that second half.”