Epic Derry comeback puts double on agenda
DERRY 4-8 ANTRIM 0-19 A MONUMENTAL finishing burst just when it seemed they had blown their chance of victory saw Derry stun Antrim to win their first Ulster SHC title in 92 years yesterday.
A sucker punch goal from corner-forward John O'Dwyer with five minutes to go allowed them to pip Antrim in a sensational finish at Casement Park.
Earlier, Antrim appeared to be coasting to their 41st title as they charged into a four-point lead with 10 minutes remaining, having recovered from an awful first half effort that saw them trailing by 3-4 to 0-5 at the interval.
At the end of it all, though, Antrim did not know what hit them and, as Derry captain Conor Murray accepted the shining silver cup high in the stands, they looked a forlorn group hardly able to believe they had lost their first championship game to their opponents since 1903 to give the Oak Leaf county the first of their two titles. Their 1908 win came against Cavan.
Derry did the impossible in many ways by coming back to win after shooting 14 wides in the first half and four more in the second. Indeed, the looked almost disoriented by the succession of points which Antrim delivered in the opening 20 minutes of the second half, 10 in all without reply.
``The one thing I've always said about this team is their incredible determination and the way they are so keen to work for each other,'' said a thrilled Derry manager Kevin McNaughton, whose side won despite the absence of some key players.
For highly industrious Derry centre-forward Kieran McKeever, this could well be the first leg of a double gold medal-winning performance as he is also a central figure in the football team which plays Armagh in the final at Clones on Sunday. Derry are bidding to become the first team since Antrim in '46 to do the double in Ulster.
And what a part McKeever played yesterday with his industry, tenacity and will to win, along with his first half goal, crucial factors in Derry's historic triumph. But this was a team of heroes from brilliant goalkeeper Kieran Stevenson, to left corner-forward and vital goalscorer O'Dwyer, to the substitute Gregory Biggs, who set up the score with his guile and maturity on the ball.
That goal virtually came out of nothing with Biggs cutting the ball across from the left corner to his brother Gary who then set up the unmarked O'Dwyer who managed to get around Shane Elliott and flick the sliotar to the empty net.
It was a goal which stunned Antrim supporters but had the faithful Derry fans in the near 3,000 crowd leaping from their seats only for parity to follow immediately when impressive Antrim substitute Chris Hamill levelled with his third point.
A replay looked certain but then, right on the 35th minute, a foul on Michael Collins saw his brother Oliver step up to stroke the free between the uprights for the lead once again.
It was a score which gave the midfielder real satisfaction as he had shot eight wides before that. There was, however, a last chance in the second minute of injury time for Antrim to save their title but Gary O'Kane's sideline cut was pushed out for a '65 by which time the referee's whistle had sounded for full-time.
Derry's finish was sensational considering that the wheels appeared to have come off their challenge during much of the second half. A single point from a free by Gary Biggs was their only score in 25 minutes before a point from Kevin McCloy and another from Gregory Biggs lifted their flagging spirits.
But, at that stage, Antrim had been in such control, having picked off their points almost at will, that they must have felt they could not lose, especially with Gary O'Kane dominating at centre-back after being switched there. O'Kane was flanked by the equally effective Michael McCambridge and Kieran Kelly. Up front, Conor McCambridge picked off his points superbly, as did Alistair Elliot, Gregory O'Kane, Conor Cunning and Hamill.
Every time the ball came into play during that spell of dominance it found an Antrim hand and they sprinted into an 0-18 to 3-5 lead with 10 minutes left. Derry looked dead and buried but somehow they pulled up their socks, inspired by a couple of brilliant saves from Stevenson, the superb work of full-back Murray, Colin McEldowney in the middle and that of Declan Cassidy, Benny Ward and Niall Mullen.
It took a full 24 minutes before the game came alive when Oliver Collins sent Gary Biggs through and his pass saw McKeever cut through for Derry's opening goal with the second coming soon afterwards when Biggs collected a cross from Michael Collins and give Elliot no chance.
Antrim looked woeful at this stage and their couple of points reply were soon wiped out by Derry's third goal when Oliver Collins managed to break through the Antrim defence to finish McKeever's free to the net.
Antrim were a different team in the second half when the pace and quality of the hurling lifted and they took their points in a confident manner after Hamill missed an easy goal chance right on the resumption.
But in the end Derry's fitness and will to win carried them through and the whole county will now be in a confident mood of completing a historic double for the Oak Leaf county.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Kieran Stevenson (Derry).
SCORERS - Derry: G Biggs 1-3 (2f), O Collins 1-2 (2f), J O'Dwyer 1-1, K McKeever 1-0, K McCloy and G Biggs 0-1 each. Antrim: C McCambridge. 0-6, (3 '65, 1f), Gregory O'Kane 0-4 (3f), A Elliott 0-3, C Hamill 0-3 (1 sideline), C Cunning, J Connolly, A Delargy 0-1 each.
DERRY - K Stevenson; C McGurk, C Murray, N Mullan; B Ward, C McEldowney, D Cassidy; O Collins, M Conway; K McCloy, K McKeever, R McCloskey; G Biggs, M Collins, J O'Dwyer. Subs: Gregory Biggs for Conway (60 mins).
ANTRIM - S Elliot; E O'Hara, C McCambridge, D McKillip; M McCambridge, M Molloy, K Kelly; J Connolly, C Cunning; C McCambridge, G O'Kane, R Donnelly; A Delargy, Gregory O'Kane, A Elliot. Subs: C Hamill for O'Hara (24). A Mort for Donnelly (69). Booked: J Connolly.
REF - J McDonnell (Tipperary).
U-21 Ulster Hurling Final