Cahill hails Saffrons' steely show
Despite playing most of the second half with just 14 men, Antrim made hurling history in O'Moore Park on Saturday night, staging a storming comeback to win their first game in Leinster in their third season of asking.
When there was a bit of harmless squaring up between the sides after the final whistle, Laois fans could only wonder why their players had left it so late to show any bit of fighting spirit.
The O'Moores faded out of a game they had led 2-7 to 1-5 at half-time.
When Antrim wing-back Neil McAuley was shown a straight red card for striking just five minutes after the re-start, the game certainly looked theirs for the taking, especially as they had also shot eight wides and squandered two more clear goal chances before the interval.
But instead of kicking on the home side retreated into a defensive shell that proved of little use against Antrim who, with the big wind advantage, started picking off long-range points at will to completely nullify Laois's numerical advantage.
The Saffrons are always good for at least one big championship performance a year, but manager Dinny Cahill was particularly delighted with this one given that his inexperienced side were without six of the team which saw off the challenge of Dublin last year and lost another key man -- Shane McNaughton, son of 'Sambo' -- to illness before throw-in.
"We hadn't that big a mountain to climb, especially with the breeze in the second half," Cahill insisted.
"You'll always get nervousness from a young team but once they got rid of the nerves and knuckled down to hurl they were well capable of it."
He was particularly thrilled with the second-half performance of corner-forward Conor McCann who, on his full senior debut, scored 0-4 from play and terrorised Laois every time he ran at them.
But Cahill's key move was the switch of Neil McManus from full-forward to midfield from where he completely bossed the game with an awesome display of ball-winning, long-range scoring and vision.
"Neil wasn't getting the ball inside and you don't leave a good man tied up like that," Cahill stressed.
Laois fans will wonder why manager Brendan Fennelly didn't apply similar logic and use their spare man further upfield to stem a comeback that quickly turned into a tide.
Fennelly reckoned the real damage was done before the break, saying "it took us a quarter of an hour to settle with the breeze, which cost us dearly."
Injury admittedly forced him to start without Brian Campion and Ger Reddin and the home side lost two more key men -- Joe Fitzpatrick and Brian Dunne -- by the 40th minute, but that was still no excuse for the way Laois disappeared and showed so few battling qualities.
John Brophy's blistering pace had roasted teenager Chris McGuinness in the first half and with Willie Hyland already on 1-3 (the goal came from a 20-metre free), they looked capable of really opening up the visitors.
But after the break McGuinness -- usually a forward -- was allowed to push on. Antrim completely shut up shop defensively, and swamped Laois in midfield.
Within 15 minutes of the re-start they had pulled level. The Saffrons then went three points clear before a very fortunate third Laois goal -- Owen Houlihan's shot was deflected in off Aaron Graffin's hurl -- threw the home side a lifeline with 10 minutes remaining.
Laois debutant Willie Dunphy did well when he came in but Antrim then rattled off three points without reply to leave the result beyond doubt, with both corner-backs Michael Herron and Karl Stewart and substitutes Michael Armstrong and Darren Hamill all taking inspiration from McManus' brilliant leadership.
Fennelly bemoaned the fact that a late snap-shot from Sean Bourke went narrowly wide but Laois didn't look capable of earning a reprieve.
Despite the extra man they surrendered acres of space, shot a dismal six scores (1-5) and five wides after the break.
They also hadn't the same bench strength as Antrim.
Fennelly said their only consolation was that Antrim were in a similar position last year and still reached the All- Ireland quarter-finals, but if Laois are to be this year's back-door bandits they'll need to improve radically on this spiritless display.
Man of the Match: Neil McManus (Antrim)
Scorers -- Antrim: N McManus 0-10 (8f), C McCann, K Stewart 0-4 each, S McCrory 1-0, C Herron, M Armstrong, N McAuley (f) 0-1 each. Laois: W Hyland 1-4 (4f), O Houlihan, N Foyle 1-1 each, W Dunphy 0-2, M Whelan 0-2 (2f), J Walsh and S Bourke 0-1 each.
Antrim -- C O'Connell 8; C McGuinness 7, A Graffin 7, K Molloy 8; N McAuley 5, M Herron 7, C Herron 7; P Shiels 7, B McFall 6; S McCrory 7, K Stewart 8, J Black 6; C McCann 8, N McManus 9, K McKeegan 6. Subs: M Armstrong 7 for Black (43), D Hamill 7 for McKeegan (56), K McGourty for McFall (67).
Laois -- P Mullaney 7; J Delaney 6, B Stapleton 7, B Smith 6; J Fitzpatrick 6, M Whelan 7, B Galvin 6; J Walsh 6, S Bourke 6; B Dunne 6, N Costelloe 7, W Hyland 8; O Houlihan 7, N Foyle 7, J Brophy 7. Subs: C Dunne 6 for Fitzpatrick (h-t), W Dunphy 8 for Dunne (39), S Dollard 6 for Costelloe (61).
Ref -- A Kelly (Galway).