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Unbeaten Saffrons' sensational smash-and-grab raid breaks Faithful hearts and secures Kerry spot in decider

Offaly 0-20 Antrim 2-14, Allianz NHL Division 2A

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Antrim captain Conor McCann celebrates after his injury-time goal earned the Saffrons a draw. Photo: John McIlwaine

Antrim captain Conor McCann celebrates after his injury-time goal earned the Saffrons a draw. Photo: John McIlwaine

Antrim captain Conor McCann celebrates after his injury-time goal earned the Saffrons a draw. Photo: John McIlwaine

There was almost a look of embarrassment on Darren Gleeson's face after he watched Antrim sensationally snatch a draw in dramatic circumstances at Bord na Móna O'Connor Park in Tullamore yesterday.

Barring a defeat by 37 points or more, Antrim were already through to the League decider, and despite commendably playing a strong side and keeping the integrity of the competition intact, they played like a side with the bigger picture in mind.

Alternatively, Offaly fought for their lives and had the upper hand in almost every sector until their tendency to self-sabotage reared its ugly head again as they leaked two goals with time just up.

Inspirational

A place in the final was in their grasp only for the inspirational Neil McManus to fire home a 76th-minute goal, followed two minutes later by another from Conor McCann in what was the last puck of the game.

As interventions go, it doesn't get much better than that from skipper McCann and it rubber-stamped Antrim's place in the final against Kerry, maintaining their unbeaten run this spring with Michael Fennelly's Offaly losing out in agonising fashion.

"I said to Mick (Fennelly) and Johnny (Kelly) after the match when I met them, how can you explain that? We showed serious heart and determination to stay at it and they stayed plugging and plugging away," Gleeson said.

"Performance wise, it wasn't great. Offaly broke us down everywhere, they won every dirty ball, I'm not happy with that. But I'm glad that we're coming out unscathed in the League with four wins and a draw."

It would have been easy for Fennelly to find scapegoats, with Offaly fans irate over the amount of second-half injury-time played by Carlow referee David Hughes.

Two minutes more than the allocated six were played, but there were plenty of stoppages during that time so that was understandable and the Offaly boss wasn't in the mood for excuses as he accentuated the positives.

"Eight minutes is a long time and I believe we were a minute short in the first half," Fennelly said. "These inconsistencies are consistent in the GAA, I'm not going to talk about it or blame anyone or complain because there's no point.

"I just want to move on and think about the team and where we have to go. We made some silly mistakes but I think we're improving, we'll learn from them and there's capacity to improve which is key.

"We're not at our limits by any means and we can really improve and that's what really excites me about Offaly hurling.

"There are a massive amount of positives, I know the result didn't go our way but that's sport."

Offaly started well with a stiff breeze at their backs and raced into an 0-8 to 0-1 lead after 11 minutes with Birr sharpshooter Eoghan Cahill - who was forced off late on due to injury - excelling once again from play and placed balls.

It looked like the home side were going to run away with things, but Gleeson opted to drop Donal Nugent back into defence to gain a foothold and stem the bleeding. It worked a treat as they halted the Faithful's momentum.

Frees were the only thing keeping Antrim - who remarkably only had three scorers - in the game early on with Fennelly admitting that "discipline is killing us at times".

McManus was unerring from deadballs and they had the lead cut to three - 0-9 to 0-6 - just eight minutes later with Offaly springing captain Ben Conneely from the bench in the second quarter despite a shoulder injury.

Conneely helped to drive Offaly on before half-time along with Cahill's accuracy up front but four points - 0-13 to 0-9 - wasn't a fair reflection of their dominance as they went in at the break.

The visitors were expected to kick on in the second half but it never materialised with no one able to make an impact on the scoreboard and amazingly McManus was their only second-half scorer until McCann's late leveller.

Dynamo

Offaly gave a textbook display as they controlled proceedings and lorded affairs around the middle third while David Nally was thriving in space with the Belmont dynamo firing over three beauties.

The gap was never less than three points in the closing period and it was six deep into added time with Offaly looking home and hosed.

Suddenly, McManus reacted quickest to a Ciarán Johnson free to fire past James Dempsey while Johnson was the provider when McCann whipped the sliotar to the Offaly net to break Faithful County hearts.

Scorers - . Offaly: E Cahill 0-11 (7f, 1 s/l); P Geraghty (1 s/l), D Nally 0-3 each; B Watkins, S Cleary, B Murphy 0-1 each. Antrim: N McManus 1-13 (10f, 0-1 '65); C McCann 1-0; Conor Johnson 0-1.

Offaly - J Dempsey 6; C Burke 7, D O'Toole Greene 7, M Cleary 5; B Watkins 7, D Doughan 7, B Murphy 6; L Fox 6, D King 6; C Gath 5, J Sampson 6, P Geraghty 7; D Nally 7, S Cleary 6, E Cahill 8. Subs: B Conneely 8 for M Cleary (22), R Ravenhill 6 for Gath (h-t), S Dolan 7 for Sampson (57), L Langton 6 for Cahill (inj, 64), O Kelly for S Cleary (70).

Antrim - R Elliott 7; M Donnelly 7, P Duffin 6, S Rooney 7; G Walsh 6, Ciarán Johnson 7, A O'Brien 6; K Molloy 6, R Molloy 6; J McNaughton 6, N McManus 8, N McKenna 6; D Nugent 7, C McCann 7, Conor Johnson 6. Subs: C Cunning 7 for O'Brien (blood, 40), D Kearney 6 for R Molloy (55), C Boyd 6 for Walsh (58), E O'Neill for McNaughton (67), A Delargy for Conor Johnson (67).

Ref - D Hughes (Carlow).

Irish Independent