Pat Gilroy's Dublin register Antrim win but only by the skin of their teeth
DUBLIN 0-23 ANTRIM 0-22
THE Dublin hurlers are back in the winning zone – but only just.
It required a 76th minute free from Donal Burke to secure a nerve-shredding one-point win in Corrigan Park, just when it appeared that Antrim's grandstand finish had secured a share of the Division 1B spoils.
Pat Gilroy's side led by six points at the break and twice extended this to seven, but the Neil McManus-inspired Saffrons came with a late surge to parity.
Four minutes of stoppage time had been signalled and this had just elapsed when McManus nailed an 85m free for his 16th point of an intriguing, full-blooded contest played on a soft pitch.
But there was still time for one more puckout and Dublin sub Liam Rushe, making his on-field baptism for Gilroy, won possession and drew the all-important 65m free.
Burke, who had been taken off freetaking duties earlier in favour of Paul Ryan but resumed on the latter's substitution, made no mistake. That brought his personal haul to 0-7 but, far more importantly, it secured a crucial two points for his county.
This game had assumed a greater significance for the Sky Blues in the wake of last weekend's troubling 13-point collapse to Offaly in Croke Park.
Suddenly, a trip to Belfast was being dressed up as a shootout to avoid being dragged into a relegation dogfight.
The top four teams in Division 1B – scarcely a demanding barometer - advance to the NHL quarter-finals; but the bottom two must face off in a relegation play-off to avoid Division 2A.
Hence the need for Dublin to get off the mark quickly, especially with their next two fixtures away to Limerick and at home to the All-Ireland champions, Galway.
That partially explains why Gilroy made six changes in personnel, recalling six players all with prior championship experience, some more than others. Eoghan O'Donnell and James Madden were brought into defence while Danny Sutcliffe, Conal Keaney, Eamonn Dillon and Paul Ryan were restored to beef up a callow and (against Offaly at least) malfunctioning attack.
And yet, despite opening their account inside 15 seconds through Burke, the revamped visitors to find their stride.
Driven on by McManus, who scored all eight of Antrim's first half points, the hosts raced into a 0-4 to 0-1 lead inside ten minutes – aided by two McManus monster frees from inside his own '65'.
The returning Sutcliffe was in the thick of the early action, squaring up to McManus at one stage and then earning a deserved yellow for a frontal hit on Conor McCann.
But, gradually, Dublin found their mojo and points from James Madden and a Paul Ryan '65' saw them draw level, 0-6 apiece, at the end of the first quarter.
McManus edged Antrim back ahead in the 26th minute, but that seemed to spark Dublin to life. With Keaney, 35 years young, growing in influence around the middle-third and shooting 0-2 into the bargain, they rattled off seven unanswered points to lead by 0-14 to 0-8 at the break.
When Ryan tapped over a 20m free on the restart, you waited for Antrim to fade away. Instead, raiding corner-back Arron Graffin and lively sub James McNaughton both landed a brace to complement the deadball efforts of McManus ... all of which kept Antrim within touch before they rattled off five unanswered points to draw level, all too fleetingly, at the death.
SCORERS - Dublin: P Ryan 0-8 (6f, 1 '65'), D Burke 0-7 (4f), F Whitely, C Keaney, C McBride 0-2 each, J Madden, D Sutcliffe 0-1 each. Antrim: N McManus 0-16 (11f, 2 '65s'), A Graffin, J McNaughton 0-2 each, G Walsh, D McCloskey 0-1 each.
DUBLIN: A Nolan; P Smyth, B O'Carroll, E O'Donnell; S Barrett, C Crummey, J Madden; C McBride, T Connolly; D Burke, F Whitely, D Sutcliffe; C Keaney, E Dillon, P Ryan. Subs: L Rushe for Ryan (51), J McCaffrey for McBride (53), N McMorrow for Connolly (64), P Winters for Dillon (69).
ANTRIM: C O'Connell; P Burke, J Dillon, A Graffin; J Maskey, M Donnelly, D Kearney; C McKinley, G Walsh; N Elliott, N McManus, J Connolly; D McKinley, C McCann, C Johnston. Subs: C Carson for Connolly (inj 8), N McAuley for Maskey (43), J McNaughton for Walsh (45), R McCambridge for McCann (53), D McCloskey for Elliott (63).
REF: J Heffernan (Wexford).
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.