Brendan McTaggart reports from Pearse Park, Arklow
Antrim put in a workman like performance on Sunday afternoon to get their league campaign off to a winning start. Nine points they had to spare over a Wicklow side that certainly made life uncomfortable for Darren Gleeson’s side.The Saffrons were never really fluid, especially in a dour opening half, but they upped the pace in the second period when it was really needed and done enought to claim both points in the end.
It was never going to be a 26 point drubbing like when the sides last met. That Kehoe Cup encounter was played on the pristine surface of the GAA’s Centre of Excellence in Abbotstown. Pearse Park in Arklow is fair to say wasn’t. From a distance the pitch looked soft, a closer inspection showed long grass and a lumpy surface. Everything the Abbotstown venue wasn’t and Wicklow turned the game into a dogfight that they were up for but once Antrim adapted to the conditions and opposition, they took control.
Wicklow started brightly and their intensity caught Antrim cold. The Saffrons couldn’t get any ball to stick in the forward line. They scored four points in the first 14 minutes, McManus’ third free in the same period giving them the lead for the first time in the match. In a close first half, Antrim struggled for long periods with the sides tied on four separate occasions.
Antrim held a one point lead at the short whistle with Neil McManus doing the majority of their scoring in a stop-start first half. The Ruairi Og man finished top scorer for the Saffrons with eleven points overall, ten frees. Wicklow were dogged, physical and tenacious all over the field and packed their own defence to starve Antrim of any attacking room.
The Antrim defence stood strong in the face of the physical barrage that came their way. Paddy Burke putting in a man of the match performance throughout with another accomplished display at the heart of the Saffron defence. Ciaran Johnston’s tussle with Andy O’Brien was intriguing throughout before the Wicklow marksman was taken off in the second half. O’Brien had caused Antrim major problems in the Kehoe Cup but both of his two points came from placed ball. He drifted out the field to get more involved and along Daniel Staunton and Pádraig Doyle they gave Antrim their fill of it in attack.
Goal chances were scarce throughout with Antrim managing one effort at the end of the first half. James McNaughton making a break through the Wicklow defence evading the attentions of three tackles before laying the sliotar to Eoin O’Neill. The Dunloy man sent his defender the wrong way with a beautiful dummy but his fierce drive from a narrow angle was well save by Wicklow ‘keeper Conor McNally.
Antrim improved in the second half and one of the major differences was impact of their players off the bench. The Saffrons introduced Conor Johnston and Eoghan Campbell at half time and they turned their two point lead into a ten point deficit before Wicklow opened their account in the second half. Having adapted to the surroundings and conditions, Antrim started the second half with eight unanswered points that put them in the driving seat with Conor Johnston, Niall McKenna, Dan McCloskey (two) and McManus with four points (three free) in a 19 minute period.
Wicklow were still causing Antrim problems but they were wayward in front of the target, allowing Antrim to pull away.
It wasn’t an eye catching performance from the Saffrons but the performance wasn’t important. A winning start to a campaign they hope will yield promotion was imperative and they did that with a bit to spare. All thoughts turn now to a meeting with Mayo in Loughgiel on Sunday afternoon.
Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Ciaran Johnston, Stephen Rooney; Gerard Walsh, Paddy Burke, Matthew Donnelly; Neil McManus, Nicky McKeague; James McNaughton, Niall McKenna, Ryan McCambridge; Eoin O’Neill, Domhnall Nugent, Dan McCloskey
Subs: Conor Johnston for R McCambridge (ht); Eoghan Campbell for N McKeague (ht); Aodhan O’Brien for M Donnelly (52); Michael Bradley for E O’Neill (54); Ronan Molloy for N McKenna (64)
Scorers: Neil McManus 0-11 (10 f’s); Gerard Walsh 0-2; Dan McCloskey 0-2; Niall McKenna 0-1; James McNaughton 0-1; Eoin O’Neill 0-1; Conor Johnston 0-1; Michael Bradley 0-1
Wicklow: Conor McNally; Warren Kavanagh, Brian Kearney, Martin O’Brien; Gary Byrne, Billy Cuddihy, Peter Keane; Eamon Kearns, John Henderson; Jack Doyle, Eoin McCormack, Daniel Staunton; Gavin Weir, Andy O’Brien, Pádraig Doyle
Subs: Enda Donohue for G Weir (ht); Gary Hughes for E McCormack (ht); James Cranley for A O’Brien (55); Christopher Moorhouse for J Doyle (65)
Scorers: E Donoghue 0-3 (3 f’s); Eamon Kearns 0-2; Jack Doyle 0-2; Andy O’Brien 0-2 (1f 1 ’65); Pádraig Doyle 0-1; Daniel Staunton 0-1