McManus ensures Antrim dig deep to see off Westmeath
Antrim's senior hurlers were full value for their nine-point winning margin in a preliminary round qualifier tie against Westmeath at Casement Park on Saturday afternoon, despite the midlanders' third-quarter comeback which saw the margin reduced to just a goal.
Wind-assisted Westmeath opened the scoring after a mere 30 seconds with a Ciaran Curley point, but an unanswered 1-5 from the home team had them firmly in control by the 11th minute. The goal was well finished from 20 metres by young corner-forward Conor McCann after eight minutes, following a long delivery by wing-back Aaron Graffin.
Westmeath responded well when Paul Greville found the net from a tight angle after Chris O'Connell could only bat out Brian Smyth's angled shot for a point. However, with the outstanding Neil McManus availing of sloppy and indisciplined Westmeath defending, the Glensmen were nine points to the good (1-10 to 1-1) after 18 minutes.
At the other end, a tight-marking Antrim rearguard was keeping close tabs on the losers' forward division. Just past the half-hour mark, McManus turned provider and McCann pounced for his second goal when he rifled the ball past Cathal Scally (who is still a minor) from 15 metres. At the break, Antrim had already one foot in round two, leading by 2-16 to 1-9.
However, Westmeath, with Brendan Murtagh to the fore in attack, rallied with great spirit in the third quarter. Indeed, they only registered one wide in the entire second half (and that came in the closing stages) and they outscored the winners by nine points to two (the second a monster free from full-back Cormac Donnelly) to trail by a mere goal (2-18 to 1-18) after 50 minutes.
The Lake County men visibly ran out of steam at this juncture, however, and Antrim took control again, firing over a succession of points from frees and open play. Westmeath's last score came in the third minute of injury-time, fittingly a classy effort from Murtagh, but the outcome had become inevitable some 10 minutes earlier.
With a home tie against Carlow next up on Saturday (the second part of a double-header, with last Saturday's rivals renewing acquaintances in the big ball game), Dinny Cahill's men will be firm favourites to progress to the next phase of the back door.
For their part, the Westmeath powers that be will be hoping to persuade Brian Hanley to stay on in a long-term capacity now that his interim management has concluded with an undoubted rise in their profile since their dismal league campaign.
Scorers -- Antrim: N McManus 0-11 (8f, 1'65'), C McCann 2-1, P Shiels 0-3, D Hamill, K Stewart 0-2 each, C Donnelly (f), A Graffin, C Herron, S McCrory, C McFall (f), B McFall 0-1 each. Westmeath: B Murtagh 0-10 (5f, 1 s/l), P Greville 1-0, P Dowdall, D McNicholas 0-3 each, J Shaw 0-2, C Curley 0-1.
Antrim -- C O'Connell 5; C McGuinness 6, C Donnelly 7, K McGourty 6; A Graffin 7, M Herron 7, N McAuley 6; P Shiels 8, C Herron 6; S McCrory 6, K Stewart 6, N McManus 9; C McCann 8, D Hamill 7, J Black 5. Subs: K Molloy 6 for C Herron (49), C McFall 6 for Black (55), B McFall for M Herron (68), J McCouaig for McGourty (70).
Westmeath -- C Scally 6; C Flanagan 6, D McCormack 5, A McGrath 4; E Price 5, A Mitchell 6, P Gilsenan 5; P Dowdall 7, B Smyth 5; J Shaw 6, P Greville 5, B Murtagh 8; C Curley 5, D McNicholas 6, D Carty 5. Subs: A Price 6 for McGrath (h-t), A Devine 5 for Carty (44), K Martin 5 for McCormack (inj, 60).
Ref -- T Carroll (Offaly).